Magnificent Dan Mask
S O L D
Magnificent Dan Mask. With concave face, a pointed chin, a protruding mouth, an upturned nose and high-domed forehead, glossy black patina.
- An US private collection, acquired in mid-20th century, and thence by descent
- An important European private collection
Height 28 cm. mask only, total height with iron stand 46 cm.
There are a variety of Dan face masks. This is Gunyeya mask, also called a racing mask. The mask has a pointed face and typical large circular eyes. Its wearer is pursued by an unmasked runner and, if caught, the unmasked runner wears the mask and, in turn, pursued. Historically, these races trained men to fight and the winner and the winner gained social recognition. Nowadays, the races are more like a game.1
- Jean-Baptiste Bacquart, The tribal arts of Africa.
Masks are the most important art form of the Dan people of Liberia. The Dan people refer to these masks as gle or ge, terms that refers both to the physical mask and the individual spirits the mask is believed to embody during masquerade performances.
Scholars use the terms ge and gle interchangeably to refer both to Dan masks and to invisible, supernatural spirit forces that live in the forest but esteem to enter the civilized world of the village. The only way they can do this, the Dan believe, is through masquerade.
In order for a gle to be embodied during a masquerade, an initiated member of a Dan men’s society must have a dream that reveals the exact nature of the gle, its intended function, and the masquerade through which the gle would manifest. The council of elders, once they are told of the dream, decides whether the masquerade ensemble should be created for that man to wear and perform.
The wooden gle is accompanied by a full-body costume constructed of raffia, feathers and fur. It is believed that each gle has its own personality, preferences, dance and speech patterns and is given a personal name. The wearer of the mask takes on all of these qualities during the masquerade. Having come from the dark, mysterious realm of the forest, a gle is believed to be unpredictable. Therefore, an attendant always accompanies the gle masquerade to control it and interpret its speech.
Dean gle and Bu gle masks
Gle can be divided into two categories: that of dean gle, which is a gentle, peaceful gle without a gender, but whose qualities are thought of as feminine and that of bu gle, which is the war gle named after the sound of a gunshot, whose qualities are thought of as masculine.
The dean gle mask represents an idealized version of Dan beauty. It is characterized by narrow eyes, an oval shape, a smooth forehead, and a mouth slightly open to expose teeth. Dean gle’s functions are to teach, entertain and nurture.
Bugle masks are designed to frighten. Their eyes are depicted as protruding tubes and the surface of the face has boldly projecting angles. The most powerful bugle masks are decorated with animal and human deposits such a bone and fur.
Ma go, personal miniature masks
Dan personal miniature masks, from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum
Similar to gle masks, miniature masks are carved to embody du tutelary spirits, but their main function is the protection of their owner from harm. These masks may also be used in divination and as sacred objects upon which to swear an oath – thus man go are treated like other sacred objects and are fed with ritual offerings and kept hidden from public display.
In some cases, an owner of a full-sized mask may carry a miniature version of the large mask to serve as a ma go.