The border between Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia cuts across several ethnic groups, including the Dan, Wee, Kran, and Grebo. In Dan society, dangerous immaterial forest spirits are translated into the forms of human face masks. Whether or not they are worn, such sculptures are spiritually charged. Male performers, gle-zo, experience a dream sent by the mask spirit that allows them to dance it. In performance, the masks are integrated into the hierarchical system that governs political and religious life.
Dan masks have been documented as the embodiment of at least a dozen artistic personalities. Among these are Deangle, who ventures into the village from the initiation camps to ask women for food; Tankagle and Bagle, who entertain through a range of aesthetically pleasing dances, skits, and mimes; Gunyege, whose mask is worn by a community's champion foot racers in competitions; and Bugle, who historically leads men into battle. This example, with its bird-like beak, small oval eyes, and voluminous beard made from fur is known as Ge Gon. Originally educational, historical, and regulartory, it was described as a mask of wisdom. It has progressively become mostly an entertaining mask, that appeals through its bird-like movements in performance.
Once they are divorced from their performance contexts, however, mask forms are difficult to identify. Performances of Bete and Wee masks may span the careers of many generations of wearers, contributing to the increasingly sacred status of these objects. A masquerade's vitality may also be transferred from one mask form to another. Over time, any respected Dan mask may eventually be elevated to the category gunagle, the mask that represents a village quarter, or gle wa, a judicial mask.
[Alfred L. Scheinberg Galleries, New York]; Ruth Trunzo, East Hampton, NY, until 1976
Fischer, Eberhard, and Hans Himmelheber. The Arts of the Dan in West Africa. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 1984, pp. 81-85 (see below).