African and Tribal Art, ‘Dan Wooden Mask’, 20th Century AD, Barakat Gallery
African and Tribal Art, ‘Dan Wooden Mask’, 20th Century AD, Barakat Gallery
African and Tribal Art, ‘Dan Wooden Mask’, 20th Century AD, Barakat Gallery

The Dan tribe of Liberia and the Ivory Coast are a member of the Mande language group. Their subsistence and social practices are fairly well understood, and they are remarkable for being one of the most prolific of the West African masquerade tribes. While the general “Dan” name covers the majority of specimens to share the common characteristics – glossy finish, gracile features, domed forehead, dark colouring – there are in fact many variants within the corpus that confound simplistic efforts to categorise them. For example, there is a variant known as the “firewatch mask”, which is linked to the authority to prevent the careless use of fire, while the wearer of the “harvest mask” always takes the first helping of food at the harvest festival and thus brings benedictions upon the village. Before the 1960s, there was hardly a single job in the village that did not require a mask of some sort, from recalling a runaway wife to snatching feast food and giving it to children. The secret language of masks is controlled by the elder Leopard Society, the main decision-making body in Dan villages. Very small examples are likely to be passport masks – too small to be worn on the face, but worn as a clothing accessory in the masquerade, and to guarantee personal protection. Important masks were habitually kept on the family shrine and received libations.

The current example is at the larger end of the passport mask scale, and was therefore probably wearable as a masquerade item. As it does not have a large number of piercings around its perimeter, it is likely that it was worn as it is, without the raffia or cloth ruff used with some models. It bears the closest resemblance to a firewatch mask, with a protuberant mouth, highly polished surface, a sharp nose, small, squared eyes and a sharply-pointed chin. The condition is excellent, with a glossy patina and wear from long usage. The quality of the carving is exceptional, with even small features – such as the cheekbones – carefully picked out in profile. This is a beautifully conceived and executed mask

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