Granary ladders of the Dogon from Mali

The Dogon people live on the sandy plateau of Bandiagara in central Mali (east of the Niger River) and build their villages against the cliff of Bandiagara. Before the Dogon settled in this area, the Tellem lived there until the 15th century. Known for their centuries-old traditions, the Dogon are associated with wood carvings and bronze objects, as well as beautifully decorated household objects such as doors, shutters and grain ladders. This article focuses on Dogon ladders and discusses their design and practical applications.

dogon village

A Dogon village near the Bandiagara cliff with granaries recognizable by their pointed thatched roofs.

What do Dogon ladders look like?
Characteristic of Dogon ladders is their Y-shape, with intricately carved steps at the front. Sometimes the Y-shape is flattened at the back to increase stability. The ladders come in two variations - simple or decorated with intricate patterns and symbols. These decorations often depict mythological or cosmological stories, with symbols representing animals, ancestors or celestial bodies.

The Y-shaped design of the ladder has an important meaning within the Dogon worldview. It symbolizes the connection between the three realms in Dogon cosmology - the subterranean, terrestrial and celestial worlds.

dogon ladder in situ

A woman with a boy stands near storehouses with wooden shutters, a two-wheeled cart and three goats. A Y-shaped Dogon staircase leans against a mud wall. Bankass, Mali - November-December 1983. Photography: Angeline A. van Achterberg.

How are Dogon ladders used?
The Dogon use ladders to climb their houses and granaries to overcome the varying heights of these structures. To protect their granaries from pests, the Dogon raise them on stilts. It is notable that the ladder, which serves as a staircase in this context, is not attached to the granary to prevent vermin from gaining access. Instead, a separate, easily movable and robust ladder is used to lift heavy objects in and out, made from materials easily available in the village. When not in use, the ladder is stored under the granary.

man on dogon ladder
A man stands on a Dogon step against a baobab tree and pulls off the bark used for braiding. The Bandiagara mountain face can be seen in the background. Kani Kombole, Mali - November-December 1983. Photography: Angeline A. van Achterberg.

The Dogon ladders from Rootz Gallery

Rootz Gallery shows a number of beautiful Dogon ladders in its collection. Let's delve into the descriptions of two of these fascinating pieces.

dogon ladder
Ladder 1
dogon ladder closeup
Close-ups of Dogon ladder 1

Ladder 1 is 2 meters high, has 6 steps and a slightly flattened back in the characteristic Y-shape. This ladder has a sleek and sober design without decorative carvings.

dogon ladder
Ladder 2 from the front (stairs side)
dogon ladder
Ladder 2 from the back (decorated side)
dogon ladder closeup
Dogon ladder 2 close-up of the decoration

Ladder 2 is 1.40 meters long and has 4 steps without a flattened fork. It shows decorative carvings reminiscent of the symbolism of the Kanaga mask.

Other examples of Dogon art in the Rootz Gallery collection

  • Dogon masks
    The Dogon are known for their vibrant masks used in mourning ceremonies, known as the ritual of the dama .
dogon mask
  • Granary doors
    The hardwood granary doors, decorated with beautiful carvings, often depict human figures, especially ancestral figures. Some doors depict animals, such as crocodiles, or geometric patterns. Symbolism of the Kanaga mask, a characteristic element of Dogon art, is often incorporated into these doors.
dogon granary doors
  • Bronze Dogon equestrian statue
    Bronze statuettes of Dogon riders on horseback, made using the lost wax method, symbolize wealth and power in a society where horses have considerable value due to their rarity.
Dogon equestrian statue
  • Medicine cabinets
    The medicine cabinets serve as a storage place for the herbs of a medicine man or shaman. These cabinets, with one, two or three doors, often feature wood carvings of ancestral figures or sometimes animals such as lizards or Kanaga masks. The top of the cabinet often shows one or two heads with faces on either side or more elaborate carvings, such as a rider on horseback.
Dogon medicine cabinet

We sell these items in our gallery in Deventer and through our advertisements on Catawiki .

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