As part of Black History Month 2021 we are appealing to you to help us understand an object given to us a number of years ago by a former Lord Mayor of the City of Kingston upon Hull, Honorary Alderman David Gemmell – a carved door. David’s sister was an avid visitor to Africa during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. On one of her visits she acquired a door that he later presented to the Institute for us to look after.
The 45 x 75cm door, pictured above, appears to be made out of planks of a hard wood, nailed together using handmade nails. It has some impressive carvings on the front with a clear handle near the centre. The reverse is plain. But what do the symbols represent? Where was the door originally used? And where in Africa does it originate? We would love to know more so that we can share the story with visitors to the Institute.
A quick search on Google images returns numerous types of African doors variously described as ‘traditional’ doors, ‘Dogon granary’ doors, ‘palace’ and ‘shrine’ doors, for example. The doors themselves come in various shapes and sizes, and the patterns appear to reflect the traditions of a range of wood carvers right across Africa.
Wooden doors with elaborately carved reliefs may at one time have been reserved for the wealthiest and most important of African chiefs and created by professional carvers. In any case it seems likely that the size of the doors and the quality of the carving would have reflected the status of those who commissioned them. The carvings themselves, symbolic representations of gods or celestial bodies, animals or plants, or scenes from everyday life, can sometimes give a clue to the purpose of the doors.
Where did our door originate, and who might have produced it? Could it perhaps be a Dogon door? It certainly has a number of similarities with Dogon doors for sale on the Internet. The Dogon, who live in present day Mali, produced carved wooden doors for their granaries, and the elaborate designs they used were intended to provide ritual forms of protection for their food supplies. These appear to be very popular with collectors and were sometimes sold in craft markets. Many are likely to be copies, produced expressly for the consumer market.
We have had our door for a number of years now, and would like to know more about it. So if you are able to add to our knowledge in any way, please get in touch with Nick Evans at N.J.Evans@hull.ac.uk or Judith Spicksley at Judith.Spicksley@hull.ac.uk