The Dogon peoples used wooden bolt locks (ta koguru) to secure the doors to houses, interior rooms, granaries, and some shrines. This type of lock was introduced to sub-Saharan Africa with the spread of Islam from the Near East and North Africa. The Bamana and Dogon peoples in Mali especially made them into works of art.
The lock consists of three separate pieces: the vertical beam (ta koro); the crossbeam (ta dagu) that slides into a cut-out rectangle in the back of the vertical beam, which is furnished with metal prongs; and a toothbrush-like key (ta i) that slides into a hollowed out part of the crossbeam (fig. 49). The key is outfitted with metal prongs that match those in the vertical beam. A hole bored into the doorframe opposite the mounted lock accommodates the rounded or tapered end of the horizontal beam. When the horizontal beam is pushed into this hole, the metal prongs of the vertical beam fall into the matching holes of the horizontal beam. To unlock the door, the dangling prongs of the vertical beam are pushed upward.(5)
Dogon, who were not converted to Islam, decorated their bolt locks with animal or human figures and geometric patterns inspired by Dogon religious beliefs. The figures, carved in styles ranging from representational to abstract, are either an integral part of the device or extend the vertical beam as in the Dallas example. The two figures carved on top of this lock depict the primordial couple (nommo) in an abstract manner. The nommo in Dogon mythology are the offspring of Amma (God) and the Earth. They were born bisexual and their bodies were jointless. Because the male element dominated in one and the female in the other, the original nommo were able to procreate and give birth to the four pairs of original ancestors of humankind.(6)
Geometric patterns carved in low relief on the vertical beam include zigzag lines and a square containing a cross. According to Dogon mythology and interpretations of other works of art displaying this motif, zigzag lines arranged horizontally represent the course along which an ark carrying civilization traveled from the sky to the earth. The cross within the square may symbolize the cardinal points in space.(7)
The Dogon have used Western-style padlocks since the twentieth century to secure their doors. Where sculptors are still available to carve wooden locks, the locks are either devoid of carved decoration or are decorated
with a carved lozenge that represents the head of a lizard or the Islamic symbol of the crescent moon.(8)
The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 77, pp. 222-223.
5. Imperato, Pascal James. “Dogon Door Locks.” African Arts 1, no. 4 (July 1978). p. 54.
6. Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemmeli. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.
7. Calame-Griaule, in Bilot, Alain, Michel Bohbot, Geneviéve Calame-Griaule, and Francine NDiaye, eds. Serrures du pays Dogon. Paris: Adam Biro, 2003. pp. 92-93.
8. Imperato, 1978. p. 57.