This serene mask was made by one of the undisputed master carving tribes: the Dan, of the Ivory Coast and Liberia. It is a classic example of the genre; its exact identity and function is described below. It is very rounded in the brow, coming to a sharp point at the chin. The forehead is very convex, over slanted, narrow eyes that dip towards the centre. The cheekbones are very high and prominent. The nose is long and narrow, above a mouth in which the lips appear to be drawn back, exposing sharp inlaid teeth made of bone. The patination is extremely dark and glossy, contrasting with the woven raffia cover that attaches to the top half of the mask and descends to a riot of individual strands.
The Dan are a farming tribe, settled in the semi-wooded areas of Liberia and the ivory Coast. While beholden to agriculture, much of their mythology and social structure is based upon the forest and its fiercer creatures – the Leopard Society is the main organ of social control. For example, initiates spend up to four months alone in the forest before they are permitted to enter maturity. Dan society was originally a string of spatially-proximate but socially distinct communities, and while they are now – technically at least – centralised, their diversity has found expression in the range of masks and other artefacts that they manufacture.
There was scarcely a social function that did not have its own mask prior to the 1960s. Participants and citizens held them to be imbued with sylvan energy that would enforce or formalise whatever function they served. For example, there are masks for fire-watching (= fire warden), adjudicators, warriors, debt collectors, social delinquents and warriors, and others for enlisting workers to clear paths, to catch runaway wives, to race unmasked athletes (“runner masks”) to snatch feast food to serve to children and even for spying. They were also used in standard masquerades, which have seen something of a revival due to the impact of tourism. Small masks – called “passport” masks – were kept as talismans of good luck, to ward off illness or the evil eye, and may have also served as markers of authority and ambassadorial functions. Masks were inherited through lineages, kept on altars and endowed with libations. Some retain black pitch-like substances which are presumed to be the remains of magical materials. Close affinities with the Mano, Konor, Mao, Tura and Wenion people mean that these forest tribes carve Dan-like masks which are used in rituals as diverse as circumcision and as markers to the meeting places of secret societies.
Function is not always easy to ascertain, paradoxically, as the masks were usually associated with costumes that have not survived, and of course with particular occasions, dances or people. In lacking these, we have only stylistic tendencies to go on. In the current case, certain categories can be ruled out, such as the gunyege [runner] mask (large round eyes, often inlaid) and the zakpai ge (firewatch) mask, which usually has a red cloth tied around the eyes). The serene expression and raffia coiffure is most reminiscent of the rare Go Ge mask, which belongs to the Go secret society and is worn to announce the demise of important personages such as chiefs.
This is an exceptional piece of African art.