Dan Mask

Object Title: Dan Mask

Materials: Wood, fabric, feathers, metal, encrustation

Country: Liberia

Culture: Dan

Date Created: 20th Century


The Dan people live in semi-autonomous villages along the Northeastern border of Liberia and the West Central border of Cote D’Ivoire. Though ethnically referred to as “Dan” these people are really a pastiche of related peoples who share a common Mande ancestry and language. When speaking of the “Dan” style of carving, most people actually mean the ethnic sub-groups of the Gio, Kran, and Mano. This particular example comes from the Gio people at the Ivoirian frontier in Liberia, in Nimba County.

Masks are used by the Gio people for both sacred and profane performances – public dances may be performed in the village for all to see and enjoy, and usually are of a didactic nature, enforcing social mores and good behavior. The sacred masks however, fall under the domain of the Poro secret society, which is in charge of the initiation of boys and men.

It is extremely difficult however, from simply examining a mask, to determine, what role it may have played in Dan culture. This is due in large part to the fact that Dan masks are quite multivalent, and for that reason a mask may have several potential uses, within a larger framework; the specific role being related to rank of the dancer who owns or has possession of the mask. As the dancer rises in rank in the secret Poro society, the mask too, might rise in rank and take a new name and new roles in performance – in some cases without any change to the carving, costume or decoration of the mask itself.

This particular mask type, with small round eyes, is known as Bagle, and often dances in festivals in the village. However the surface of the mask and the attached red cloth (and remains of the strip across the eyes that was also once a piece of red cloth) are a far more important indicator of what this mask was used for than simply its eye shape. In reality, a mask with an encrusted surface and especially with red cloth or painted highlights are associated with the Poro initiation, and found in one form or another among many Mande peoples. The color red recalls the blood of the circumcision as well as the fact that this mask is ‘hot’ or ‘dangerous’ to the non-initiate.

This also explains the remains of patination on this mask of blood and encrusted kola nut which was made as an empowering offering to the mask before it was put on, and also immediately signified a powerful ‘bush’ quality that made it clear that the mask was dangerous and associated with the Poro camp.


Exhibition History:

In Memoriam – Bonnie Terrill Ross (1956-2022). New YorkQCC Art Gallery of CUNY, October 12, 2023, to February 16, 2024.