Leiris and the Dogon

While undertaking the research for my doctorate in the early 1990s, I became fascinated by Michel Leiris’s book L’Afrique fantôme, published in 1934. It seemed to me that the ‘surrealist ethnography’ exemplified by Leiris had many parallels with the ‘surrealist documentary’ I was investigating. I was particularly intrigued by the use in the book of photographs of Dogon masks.

This was the first part of my thesis to be published, with the essay ‘Phantom Africa: Photography between Ethnography and Surrealism’, in the French journal Cahiers d’études africaines, no.147 (September 1997). This essay can now be found online at: www.persee.fr

The essay was reprinted with small changes as the final chapter, ‘Phantom Africa: a surrealist ethnography?’ in City Gorged with Dreams (2002).

In 2009, I had the opportunity to develop these ideas further, when Wendy Grossman asked me to contribute a chapter to her book Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens. Entitled ‘Out of Phantom Africa’, this essay looked closely at the coming together of a text by Michel Leiris and photographs by Man Ray in a feature on Dogon sculptures in Cahiers d’art (1936).

My thanks to Wendy for providing me with a PDF version of the essay from the book itself.

The book accompanied an exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, and contained much valuable research. It was published by the University of Minnesota Press and further information can be found at their website: www.upress.umn.edu

One review of the book that particularly drew attention to my chapter was by Elizabeth Edwards in the Journal of Art Historiography, no.3 (December 2010).

‘The only substantial essay not by Grossman is an elegant piece by Ian Walker on the tense and complex relations between Man Ray, Surrealism and ethnographer Michel Leiris, whose Mission Dakar-Djibouti resulted in the acquisition of some 3500 Dogon objects for Paris. In a volume so focused on the ways in which meanings were made across a range of cultural productions, Walker’s projection of the analysis into the recent debate around the aesthetic appropriation of African objects in the new Musée du Quai Branly suggest the ways in which the arguments that informed and entangled Man Ray’s responses to African objects are far from dead.’

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