Category Archives: Poro symbolism

Analyzing the Presidential Dan: A Female Figure from the Private Collection of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan

— Neil Carey

On 21 September 2016, Christie’s in New York offered a female Dan figure from the Private Collection of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Although it was the only African lot in the sale, it is a very important piece and deserves some analysis.

A DAN FEMALE FIGURE ATTRIBUTED TO THE WORKSHOP OF THE ARTIST ZLAN, LIBERIA. 20 in. (51 cm). (Photo courtesy of Christie’s)

A DAN FEMALE FIGURE ATTRIBUTED TO THE WORKSHOP OF THE ARTIST ZLAN, LIBERIA. 20 in. (51 cm).                                                            (Photo: Christie’s)

The provenance of the figure is unfortunately unknown, but it is said to have sat in the Presidential quarters in the White House. The figure was carved in the style of Zlan; it cannot be said that it was done by his hand. Old Man Slana, also called Zlan, was but one of several fine carvers working in the hinterland of northeastern Liberia in the early 1900s. His carvings characteristically have square shoulders that are more in Mano style even though he was a Dan carver. He had many apprentices throughout the years who adopted his particular style. Figures from Zlan’s workshop can usually be recognized by this stylistic deviation in the squared-off treatment of the shoulders, as opposed to the rounded shoulders of traditional Dan figural sculpture. As a comparison, below is a figure from the same period but in the traditional style.

The Reagan figure is quite interesting. At 20 inches (51 cm) tall, it is on the larger side for Dan figures. At first glance, it possesses characteristic Dan female figural attributes, including a coronet along the hairline, the Dan vertical midline forehead scarification, arms hanging passively at the sides, and elaborate scarification patterns on the chest, breasts, and abdomen (and probably on the back), a feature found on high ranking initiates in the Sande women’s society.

The Sande scarifications by themselves do not necessarily signify that this object was used in sacred Sande or Poro rituals. It may simply have been a lü mä, a secular,  vanity or commemorative piece for a woman of importance, or commissioned by an important man in the image of a favored wife. However, closer inspection reveals an important and little known aspect of Poro symbolism – bilateral asymmetry.

In Poro thought, the left-side signifies the Poro, the sacred, the supernatural, chaos, and the unknown of the bush, whereas the right-side signifies the secular side of the duality of village life, the Chief, the civil, orderly aspect of society (Carey, 2013: 29, figures 34, 63, 96, 142). The Poro, as the de facto government in Liberia, has power even over the Paramount Chief, and this is sometimes denoted in sacred sculpture by the elevation of left-sided features. I first noted this on a Loma Bakorogui mask in 2007. This is often very subtle and easily overlooked; since then I’ve observed a small corpus of Poro bush spirit masks displaying such asymmetry among the Mande-speaking Dan, Loma (Toma), and Kpelle (Guerzé), and the symbolism of left-handedness is also reported among the Kruan-speaking Sapo, Grebo, and others to the south. In this particular carving, the left ear is higher than the right ear, as is the left eye, left nostril, left side of the mouth, left hand. The horizontal chest scarification tends toward the left, and even the leg adornments are higher on the left side. This asymmetry would indicate that this was indeed an important Poro ritualistic object, probably of a Sande mother figure.

The Reagan Dan compares favorably with the Dan female figure in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania:

DAN FEMALE FIGURE LIBERIA 16½ in. (42 cm) (Photo: Penn Museum)

DAN FEMALE FIGURE, LIBERIA
Height: 16½ in. (42 cm)                                                                (Photo: Penn Museum)

The Penn figure shares the squared treatment of the shoulders characteristic of the workshop of Zlan. The coif likewise is of two parallel lobes, but each is covered with a strip of braided vegetable fiber, and held by nails. Like the Reagan figure, it also has four inset white metal teeth, probably aluminum. The scarification patterns on the abdomen and back are much simpler than those on the Reagan figure, and are more typical of the style seen on other Dan female figures. The treatment of the face, however, is extremely atypical for the Dan canon of style. With its heart-shaped form and square chin, it is also atypical for neighboring groups, such as the Mano, Kono, Bassa, and Kran. It also lacks a vertical forehead ridge. This suggests that it may be the style of a particular carver, or that the figure is a lü mä, the face representing a particular woman.

FEMALE FIGURE, GEH (DAN), TOWEH TOWN, LIBERIA Wood Coll. 1932 Height 17¼ inches (44 cm) Private American collection

FEMALE FIGURE, GEH (DAN), TOWEH TOWN, LIBERIA
Wood
Coll. 1932
Height 17¼ inches (44 cm)
Private American collection

Here is another example of a Dan female figure, carved during the same period that Zlan was active, with a softer, more rounded and relaxed treatment of the shoulders and arms, comparing favorably with the figure in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco dating from the 19th-20th century (Johnson, 1986, Figure 17). It comes from Toweh Town in Geh Territory, Liberia. The Geh are a subgroup of the Liberian Dan ethnic group, surrounded by the Mano, Bassa, and Wè. It dates from before 1932.

This figure was presented to the famed American muralist Alfred E. Tulk by a local Paramount Chief, Chief Toweh, in 1932 while Tulk visited with his old college roommate and friend Dr. George Way Harley. Harley worked as a medical missionary at his clinic in Ganta, Liberia for thirty-five years. Living among the Mano near the Guinea border and traveling extensively among the groups in the various neighboring territories, it is due to Harley’s seminal works that we have much of our accurate information about the Poro. Chief Toweh was the Paramount of the Boe-Quella Chiefdom, one of the four Dan chiefdoms.

Tulk recorded the events of the presentation in Toweh Town by Chief Toweh in his travel journal, in which this figure is illustrated. There is a handwritten label under the wooden base that states,”Collected in the Geh Country, Liberia, 1932, by Alfred Tulk. Property of Mr. and Mrs. F. Johnson. (Base added for stability).” Dr. Frederick Johnson was an anthropologist and Curator of the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology in Andover, MA. From there it was sold at at F.B. Hubley’s’ Auction Galleries in 1995, thence to a private American collection in 2001.

Exhibiting the vertical forehead scarification ridge so common in the sculpture of the Dan peoples, the face of this figure is not very detailed because it is not a portrait of a specific woman, but rather of a Poro Mother Spirit used during initiation rituals. The elaborate scarification on the chest, abdomen, and back is that of a high-ranking Sande member.

Tulk collected other female figures while in Liberia, several of which are in private collections. Two of these, as well as a figurative ceremonial spoon, were carved by Zlan, and are pictured in the book that brought him fame (Johnson, 1986: figures 12,13,15,17). These two figures exhibit the peculiar style of Zlan, with horizontal, flat, squared shoulders, similar to the Reagan Dan figure. The example shown here was not carved by Zlan, and is of the more traditional style,

 

Carey, Neil. 2013. Making the Grade: Symbolism and the Meaning of Metals in Poro Art of West Africa. Amherst: Ethnos.

Harley, George W. 1941. Notes on the Poro of Liberia. Cambridge: Peabody Museum, Harvard.

Harley, George W. 1950. Masks as Agents of Social Control in Northeast Liberia.   Cambridge: Peabody Museum, Harvard.

Johnson, Barbara C. 1986. Four Dan Sculptors: Continuity and Change. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: San Francisco.

Penn Museum Collections. from University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology HTTPS://www.penn.museum/collections/object/81047

Poro Art Offerings: Analysis of Some Objects

Poro Art Offerings: Analysis of Some Objects

Galerie Walu (Geneva) 12 November 2014

Raymond Kerr (NYC) 8 November – 8 December 2014

Bonham’s NYC) 12 November 2014

Logo Mask

GALERIE WALU-KOLLER AUCTIONS (Geneva),  AFRICAN & OCEANIC ART, 12 NOVEMBER 2014

Lot 104 is a simple, three-horned Bamana Ntomo mask, used in lower-level Boy’s initiations, once wore by a Bamana Zo (Somaw, Furatigi, Kòmòtigiw).Lot 105 is an unusually ornate seven-horned Bamana Ntomo or Kòmò mask. The system of increasing horn-numbers and their relationship to grade and status is not known. The mask is covered in florets of cowrie shells interconnected with bright red and black Abrus precatorius seeds. Although these seeds are among the most poisonous substances known, ranking right up there with ricin, and although they are likely an ingredient in some Poro poisons, in this case they are simply used as beads for ornamentation. Cowries usually symbolize the wealth and high status of a Poro mask, but this is overkill. The name, status, and function of this mask is not known.

LOT 113 is a male Gɛ mask from the Dan. It may be Liberian (Gio) or Ivorian (Yacouba) Dan in origin. Although it has round eyes, this only identifies its gender as a male Bush Spirit, and does not make it a “fire-runner” mask. The name “Zakpai” from Fischer and Himmelheber is wrong, and should no longer be used.

Not recognizing that Poro existed among the Dan, and in their attempt to organize Dan masks into a dozen rigid “types”, a Western effort not based on Dan reality, Fisher and Himmelheber labeled masks with large round eyes “fire masks” named “Zakpei”, mentioning that this name is untranslatable (1984:44-45). The word Zakpei is very wrong and its usage should no longer be perpetuated, just as the resultant myth that all round-eyed masks are either fire masks or running masks should be herein dispelled.

It is likely that these authors had a Mandingo informant, specifically one of the “Ojine Mandingo”. In Ojine Mandingo the word Diakope means “Diako person” (the Dia- particle becomes a hard “Jia” or “Zhia” sound in Mande and has a “Z” sound in Mandingo, and the particle -pe means man). Diako (Ziako) and Diakope (Zakpei) are very derogatory terms in Ojine, relating to stupidity, bush people, uncivilized people, and so on, and is the Ojine term for the Dan. The word Zakpei is bad enough, but should certainly never be attached to a mask form.it is that it is time to dispel the idea that all round-eyed Dan masks are automatically “fire masks” or “running masks”.

The description asserts that the round eyes made this mask something it wasn’t (it was not a racing or fire mask), and the eyes weren’t carved in a round shape to enable the masker to see better. In actuality, round eyes on Poro masks signify maleness and are a stylistic component of a particular Bush Spirit mask. Carey (2013) examined seventeen round-eyed Dan masks, not one of which is was running mask or a fire mask. For examples of running masks see Girard 1967: plate VIIIa and Holas 1966.

Girard, Jean. 1967. Dynamique de la Société Ouobé. Dakar: IFAN.

Holas, B. 1966. Arts de la Cote d’Ivoire. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

This mask has unfortunately been stripped of all its important attachments, costume, coif, and even the metal rings that were once around the eyes. (it was likely hammered aluminum). Therefore at this stage in its life, this “naked” mask is just a generic template of a male Dan mask, with no way of determining its real name, village where used, any public and/or secret functions, its identity, or status in the Dan Poro masking hierarchy.

Lot 115 is another round-eyed (male) Dan mask, probably from the Ivorian Yacouba, but Dan/Kono is also possible. It fortunately still retains its intricate fiber coif and beard, which appears original. There are remnants of a resinous material around the eyeholes, but no nail holes are apparent, so there was likely never metal encircling the eyes. There is no way of knowing from the image and the information given if this was a simple secular personal or village entertainment mask, or if it belonged to the Poro and had a particular secret society name and function. It is real, old, and well-used.

RAYMOND C. KERR COLLECTION, (NYC): TRADITIONAL ART OF THE IVORY COAST/ARTS TRADITIONNELS DE LA CÔTE D’IVOIRE, 8 NOVEMBER — 8 DECEMBER 2014

As expected, Raymond Kerr has assembled a high-quality group of Ivorian objects for sale in New York.

There is an old, well-used, brown wood, Poro Society male Bush Spirit mask with round eyes, probably from the Yacouba Dan or adjacent Wobé. Remnants of a yellowish-tan mask across the eyes suggest that it once had either a red cloth mask (signifying its Poro ownership) or a mask of applied kaolin. The mask still retains its fiber beard.

An old and rare double mask from the Guro is surmounted by a standing female figure. It is in excellent condition, with a patina consistent with a century-old piece.

There is a Dan/Guéré or Wobé mask with midline forehead scar, lozenge-shaped eyes, broad nose, animal teeth in the typical Kran low-set mouth, and a symmetrical application of brass-colored tacks adorning the forehead, brow and cheeks. It probably belonged to an Elder of the Kwi society.

Another brass tack adorned  face mask with tubular eyes, animal tooth-filled low-set Bété-style mouth may indeed be Bété, but with the downward-curving tusks it feels like it’s from the neighboring Nyabwa.

BONHAM’S (NYC), AFRICAN, OCEANIC AND PRE-COLUMBIAN ART 12 NOVEMBER 2014

Lot 292 is an uninspired Kran or Dan/Kran Gah Greh mask, stripped of all attachments and applied materials, except for a nail head on the tip of the nose, but fortunately it still retains its articulated jaw, showing that it was a speaking mask.

Lot 294 is a zoomorphic Senufo helmet mask ex. Alfie Schienberg. The two rounded horns curve inwards, and underneath each horn is a rounded ear, suggesting an antelope. A seated female figure sits atop an arch-like element suggestive of a heddle pulley. Only remnants of its old layer of applied materials remains. Three circumferential rings of holes were for the attachment of a costume, perhaps raffia.