— 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.
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:
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.
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