Monthly Archives: November 2014

Mali reports second Ebola death

A police officer stands guard outside the quarantined Pasteur Clinic in Bamako November 12, 2014. REUTERS/Joe Penney

A police officer stands guard outside the quarantined Pasteur Clinic in Bamako November 12, 2014. REUTERS/Joe Penney

Today Mali reported its second confirmed case and subsequent death from Ebola.

An imam from the Guinea border town of Kouremale died on 27 October from an Ebola-like disease two days after appearing at the Pasteur Clinic in Bamako, the Malian capital of 2 million people. Unfortunately, Ebola was not suspected, and the man was never tested.

His body was ceremonially washed in a Bamako mosque, and then returned to Guinea. It is feared that if indeed he was infectious, many mourners and other contacts could have become infected (in both Mali and Guinea).

A nurse who cared for him at the hospital became ill, tested positive for Ebola virus two weeks later on 11 November, and died later that evening. More than 90 possible contacts have since been placed in quarantine, and the clinic has been locked down.

The first case reported in Mali was a two-year-old girl who became infected at a funeral in Sierra Leone but subsequently died in Mali after traveling there with her Grandmother. No other cases in Mali have been traced back to the girl, and her known contacts have completed their 21-day quarantine period.

Likewise, the imam translocated from across the border in Guinea. Therefore, the nurse was probably the third Malian case, but the first person known to have contracted the disease within Mali.

We have discussed the roles that the traditional rituals of the Poro and Sande societies play in the spread of the virus, but this case illustrates that the neighboring Islamic rituals, particularly funerary customs, are also possible disease vectors.

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


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 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.


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.


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.

Poro Art at Auction: Analysis of Selected Objects at Christie’s and Sotheby’s

Poro Art at Auction: Analysis of Selected Objects


Several Harley masks are being offered, as well as miscellaneous items such as a Dan ceremonial spoon, Senufo figure and Dan/Kran mask.

Lot 120 p. 27 is an Ivorian mask, probably Yacouba Dan or even Dan-style Wobé in origin. It is a quite atypical piece. It was collected by Dr. George Harley towards the end of his three decades in Ganta, Liberia (Mano territory) working as a medical missionary (except for his brief return to the US to study anthropology at Harvard).

Harley collected and catalogued hundreds of pieces of varying quality and sometimes erroneous attribution, although for the most part he was spot on. Many pieces were given to the Peabody Museum to satisfy contractual obligations, some went to Duke University, but many others were sold privately. Many were catalogued (Lou Wells is the expert and keeper of these notes), but many were not. This particular mask is numbered 119, and was catalogued by Wells in “1952 Series A, Number 1-128).

It is not a typical deformity mask. The right eye is slit, signifying its female gender, but the left eye is tubular, typical of some Dan and many Kran/Guéré masks.

Despite surface irregularities suggestive of wear, the overall patina is evenly coated with black pigment. It must be remembered that Harley had a tendency to “restore” masks prior to sale, using his own recipe for a native black pigment. The resulting overall coating of black obscured much of the important sacrificial materials and accumulated additions that, as we have seen, are so very important in defining and communicating some masks’ identities and status.

A good example of this are the brass eyes on a Poro mask in the Wells collection that had been painted over in black, and would never have been discovered without a high degree of curiosity, close examination, and elemental composition analysis utilizing pXRF (Carey 2013:111, fig.89).

It would be important to know, e.g., if the tubular left eye on this mask had a coating of kaolin, which would hint at a witch-detecting ability.

The mouth is also atypical, without lips, possibly suggesting the toothlessness of old age. Also there is no midline forehead scar, typical of the Dan and Mano, but rather a wide oval area on the mid-forehead defined by doubly-incised lines.

The still-retained red-fabric headband (now a faded orange) indicates Poro ownership.

Lot 121 p. 28 is another Harley mask. Having the almond-shaped form of Dan and Mano masks, it displays a somewhat archaic form, with slit eyes (female) surrounded with a now tan-appearing mask, and a simple nose without nostrils. It could be Dan or Mano. The toothed mouth is oval, and suggests Bassa influence. This style of Geh mask is seen in the area where the Mano, Dan (Gio), and Bassa approximate each other in lower Nimba County. Although the mask could have been used for detecting the supernatural, it is more likely that, at least publicly, it was a happy mask, communicating only good news from the Poro Bush to the villagers. Because of the black stain, the tooth material cannot be determined from the photo.

Lot 134 p. 42 is an eroded Ivorian mask, with a large, wide nose and low-cut wide mouth suggestive of Kran influence. It would be instructive to know what the two discs are that are nailed onto the forehead, as this might symbolize Poro grade level or status.

Lot 147 p. 56 is an Ivorian mask from the Yacouba Dan or Wobé, unremarkable except for an unusual treatment of the upper eyelids, with horizontal grooves filled with kaolin.

Lot 148 p. 57 is a well-used ceremonial spoon with a woman’s face on the handle. It appears that there is some asymmetry, the left eye being higher than the right eye. This might be because it is a portrait of a particular woman, but might be deliberate left-sided dominance alluding to Poro/Sande power (Carey 2013:29-2).


Lot 14 is a bird face mask, of unknown origin, possibly Ivorian Dan (Toura or Yacouba) or Dan/Kono based on the three perifacial lines. The short beak is slightly open, but the jaw is not articulated. It has unusual pentagonal tubular eyes. It is devoid of attachments and costume, with only residual traces of applied materials.

Lot 15 is a Bassa mask from the Kokoya area of Liberia. These face masks are larger than the more familiar Kokri (aka gela) forehead masks that are worn on wickerwork.

Lot 16 is a generic female Dan mask with a retained fiber coif, but no attachments or colors to identify it as a secret society mask vs. a secular village festival mask.

Lot 17 is a Kran or Dan/Kran Gah Greh mask. Scattered nails show where it once had varyous attachments, mustache, and beard. The brow has a horizontal row of coiled material of unknown composition. If this is metal, it would help identify the mask’s grade and status.

Lot 18 is a fine standing female figure. The abdominal scarification is that of a Sande society initiate. It fortunately retains its finely-braided coif, which interestingly overlays an incised coif. The left hand is held open as if begging. The elevated left eye may be a deliberate symbol of handedness. Its aluminum teeth are consistent with the Dan ideal. The face is generic, and doesn’t seem like that of a particular woman, suggesting that this may not be a simple souvenir for an important initiate, but the lack of more elaborate scarification, particularly on the breasts, suggests it may have Sande functions, but is not an important Sande Elder “Bush Mother.”

Lot 19 is a very well-rendered Ivorian Dan or Wobé mask, possibly with Kran influence, devoid of all attachments and highly polished.

Lot 20 , identified as Guéré, is a Bété Elder’s mask that still retains its brass-colored tacks, but is missing other attachments and has been polished. It is a much simpler version of the Bété Kuru mask, with the same overall form but fewer tiers.

Lot  24 is a very well carved Kissi Pomdo figure with a great patina showing age and use. Although bells are always attached to the nape of the neck, making the voice of the spirit during divination practices, these are usually iron, brass or copper trade bells or locally-forged crotal bells, but this example has unusual elongated iron-appearing bells in addition to its brass trade bell. No mention is made if the wrapped figure still contains its small empowering medicine, usually a steatite “kissi stone”. These can usually be felt under the cloth wrappings or heard upon shaking, and can be characterized by x-rays.

Lot 26 is a rare and masterfully-carved Mende Sande society Ndoli Jowei mask.

Lot 27 is a well-carved standing female figure from the Mende. The owner would have been a Sande initiate of high status, possibly a chief’s daughter or wife, based upon the scarifications on the abdomen and the size and quality of the carving. It may have been used as a therapeutic or divinatory figure, in similar fashion to the Minsereh figure of the Sherbro as described by Alldridge.

Lot 30 is a very rare four-faced Gola helmet mask. Mention is made that these belonged to the “small medicine societies”, but these were actually different healing cults within the Sande. Yes, four faces would allow the spirit mask to see in all directions at once, thereby allowing it to detect evil and other supernatural phenomena, but this function has been well taken care of by the more usual Janus-faced figures and masks. More likely, there is a relationship between these masks and the very rare “grandmother of the village”  or “Mother of the Tribe” figures with four faces, as seen, e.g., among the Mende and Loma. The Loma figure has a normal face, but the two sides and the rear are actually Macenta-style Angbai masks, representing the three levels of Poro.

Lot 38 is a copper-alloy casting of a tortoise, described as bronze. It needs to be assayed to determine whether it is really bronze (copper + tin) or brass (copper + zinc). Unfortunately, no collection site is given. This is important because some Northern Baule have Poro, with a hierarchical masking system, probably assimilated from their Senufo neighbors, and the tortoise has great Poro symbolism.

Lot 48 is the famous well-exhibited Senufo Deble (rhythm pounder) by the Master of Sikasso. It is exquisite, and deserves all the praise given to it. Deble were heavily-used Poro objects, and if well-used show signs of lightening and wear around their upper arms where the users held them and beat the earth during funerals for Poro Elders. Interestingly, the arms on this example do not show such wear. The damage to the rear of the base is to be expected from repetitive trauma.

Lot 50 is an anthropozoomorphic helmet mask from the Senufo Poro, well-carved with a crocodile snout, but seemingly scraped and polished of its accumulated sacrificial materials.

Analysis of Selected Objects at Dorotheum Auction | Paris | 5 November 2014

Analysis of Selected Objects at Dorotheum Auction, Paris, 5 November 2014

On 5 November Dorotheum in Paris is offering several West African pieces in its Tribal Art auction that merit discussion: HTTPS://

There are three Dan face masks that most likely (but not necessarily) come from the Yacouba or Toura Dan in Côte d’Ivoire. All three are erroneously called “zakpai” or “fire runner” masks (Lots 28-30).

The presence of round eyes on a Dan mask only symbolizes that its gender is male. There are some “running masks” and “fire masks”  (Holas published some examples), but these are far outweighed by the large numbers of male Dan masks with round eyes having a multitude of other functions, including both publicly-danced village secular masks and sacred Poro masks.

Also Zakpai is one of the dozen or so “types” that Fischer and Himmelheber came up with in their effort to categorize Dan masks, but this system was not based upon Dan reality and should have been discontinued long ago. Remember, they failed to recognize that Poro still exists among the Dan, and were thus greatly handicapped in their analyses and conclusions (1984:104).

Advice to Auction Houses and Dealers: If you don’t know what a mask is used for (from collection notes, direct observation, trusted informant, etc.) or its real local name, it is best to use the most generic name (e.g. or Nyamu), or simply state only the ethnic group and location and avoid the issue of name and function altogether. 

Lot 28 is therefore a male Dan mask () . Nothing else can be said about it. It is a “naked” mask, totally stripped of all applied materials, attachments, coif, costume, and anything else that might have given a clue to its identity and status. It might have been a simple village dance mask, or it might have once been a powerful Bush Spirit mask of the Poro. As it is, it is just a generic template of a male Dan mask.

Face Mask Gunzegeh “Diageh” Dan. Near Tapeta, Liberia. Wood with fiber and cloth. Date: 1st quarter of the 20th century. Height 9 inches. (22.9 cm.) Private Collection. This was a powerful Elders’ Poro mask that was retired, scraped of power material, and then used as a shrine object for good fortune. It is not a “running mask”. (Carey 2013:16).

Lot 29 is the same, although with a hint of retained materials around the eyes, and a less well-rendered carving.

Lot 30 is, on the other hand, quite fascinating. It seems to be in fairly good condition for a well-used mask, and retains much of its important attachments.

It is a male Bush Spirit mask from the Dan Poro Society, from Liberia near the Ivorian border or from the Ivorian Dan. We know it is a Poro mask because of the red fabric strips.

Face Mask “Koh”. Dan. Liberia. Wood, fiber, power material, teeth, aluminum, poison, blood, chewed kola nuts. cloth. Height: 10¼ inches (23 cm). CFT Collection. A round-eyed (male) mask from the Dan Men’s Poro which still retains its important attachments. It is used within the Bush as a war mask and executioner (Carey 2013:48).

The glass beads appear authentic and original.

The beard of leather strips is unusual, most beards being made of plant fiber or hair.

The copper wire-wrapped vertical protrusion on top of the head reveals that this particular mask belonged to the Men’s level of Poro. Whether it was seen outside of the Poro Bush or was only used in secret rituals within the Sacred Grove (Gɛ bɔ) is unknown.

The teeth appear to be real, probably mammal.

Although the surface of the mask has been scraped and polished, enough residual encrustation persists on the beads and crevices to suggest that it once had a coating of accumulated materials, probably blood and other sacrificial materials.

The single cowrie shell is an understated symbol of the Bush Spirit’s wealth.

Lot 31 is a ceremonial spoon from the Dan (Liberian or Ivorian) or a more southerly Kruan-speaking neighbor like the Kran. Women go around with them on holidays and festivals to collect rice. Later, after undulating erotic dances, they go from man to man collecting money or other valuables, the amount based on their beauty and the beauty of the spoon. In general, these spoons are called wake mia by the Dan, meaning “spoon associated with feasts”. This style of spoon must be distinguished from the spoon style with a carved head, called mehwuoshlümia meaning “person-faced wooden spoon” (Fischer and Himmelheber 1984:123). The word pom (po is used in the catalog) refers to similar but larger spoons (27.5 inches or 70 cm long) from the Wobé said to represent the fertility spirit Nyonublekela (Girard, 1967:186). These are female figures with or without legs, with the spoon part on the top of the head (Girard, Plate XVI). The Kran call their large spoons minatu (Donner, 1944:18).

Dan ceremonial spoon “mehwuoshlümia” (person-faced wooden spoon), whose owner was called a wa ke de (at feasts acting woman). Note the difference in style from the faceless, two-legged “wake mia” (person-faced wooden spoon).

There are many wake mia spoons for each mehwuoshlümia, whose Dan owner was called a wa ke de (“at feasts acting woman”). She would have been the most hospitable woman in the village or quarter, and was not only responsible for the administration of food resources for her extended family, guests, traveling musicians and others who might pass through the village and eat at her home, but she was also responsible for preparing food for the Circumcision Bush and Boy’s Poro. The spoon provided her the help she needed to accomplish all this, as a Spoon Spirit incarnates her spoon, just as masks are Bush Spirits incarnate. Fisher and Himmelheber reported that the Spoon Spirit actually can animate the spoon so that it can move by itself without a human touching it (1984:124). In order for the spoon to be passed on to its next owner, the new wa ke de must wait to be accepted by the Spoon Spirit which comes to acknowledge her in a dream.

Lot 32 is a Kran Gah Greh mask with an usual treatment of the mouth.

Lot 46 may be one of the rarer simple Bété masks without multiple horns and tusks, showing an amalgam of styles. The pointy carved chin and its hairline suggest influence from the neighboring Guro. Brass upholstery tacks indicate that it belonged to an Elder.

Gbetu helmet mask in costume. Africana Museum, Suakoko, Liberia.

Lot 49 is a fine old Borwu (Böwu) helmet mask from the Vai or Mende of Sierra Leone or Liberia. It is misnamed “Sowei“, which is the generic name for the common helmet masks of the women’s Sande society of the Mende, Gola, and Vai. The function of this mask is analagous to that of the Gbetu helmet mask of the Gola people (and possibly the Senufo Déguélé mask), insofar as it has strong sexual powers. While the Borwu performs its wild circular dance, it seems to rise and grow larger, as a symbolic erection. The neck and the carved female head of the Borwu and Gbetu are clearly phallic. When the masquerade performance has been completed, old men approach seeking its blessing, as a medicine for erectile dysfunction.

Gola Gbetu  web

Helmet Mask. Gbetu. Gola. Bomi Hills, Liberia. Height 21 Inches (53 cm). Wood, black pigment, iron alloy upholstery tacks.

The Borwu and Gbetu are Poro men’s society masks, once thought to be female water spirits (d’Azevedo 1970:42-43). These masks are very rare, and are used to show off men’s sexual power, like the Mano Koutoh. They dance with huge raffia costumes that start out at a normal height, but then, miraculously, slowly grow to more than twenty feet tall before the eyes of their audience. This is a purposeful enactment of the male erection process. The secret lies in telescoping bamboo poles that the masker conceals, but results in making the mask appear as a towering male phallic spirit. This helmet mask is actually a stylized image of the dance, a head on a long neck over a wide body. This situation, wherein the sexual symbolism is blatantly embodied in the form of the mask, is to be contrasted with the Mano Koutoh. Whereas the idea of male power is communicated by the Koutoh mask’s dance, the same function in Vai and Gola Poro is achieved  through the masks’  form.

The overall style, a small head supported on an elongated accordion-like neck atop a large helmet body, is also seen in the Senufo Déguélé helmet mask. Besides the Vai, the Gola, De, Mende, and southern Kpelle have similar wooden helmet masks, called Gbetu among the De and Gola, but named Böwu (Borwu) among the Mende and Vai. The Gola claim that the Gbetu mask originated with them and was copied by the Vai and the Mende.

Lots 50 and 51 are properly named Mende Sowei masks from the Mende in Sierra Leone or Liberia.

Perhaps the most intriguing offering is Lot 27. All-metal masks from the Guinea Coast region are quite rare. The Temne make some hammered brass masks, and the Supreme Spirit of the Dan is a brass mask that is not worn. A copper-alloy Loma Bakorogui mask has been seen. There is also a lead-alloy mask from the Liberian Dan that is the only leaden mask known from sub-Sahara Africa.

The familiar Kpelie (beautiful woman) masks of the Senufo were sometimes cast from a copper alloy.

Goldwater (1964:9) used the term for the Senufo Poro, but as pointed out by Glaze (1981:233), who did extensive research while living for eighteen months in a Senufo village, is a Mande-language word for an equivalent organization of the neighboring Mande-speaking Dyula. Because of their long history of close association, Senufo and Dyula cultures have significantly influenced each other. Oral history reveals, e.g., that the ancient brass face masks of the Dyula society were made for them by the Kpeene brasscasters of the Senufo (38).

Face Mask. Kpelie. Senufo. Côte d’Ivoire. Date: Probably early 20th century. Copper alloy. Height 12.5 inches (32 cm). Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University, Bristol, Rhode Island Gift of William Brill

The mask offered is not a Senufo Kpelie mask. Stylistically, it appears to be from the Dyula society, at least from the horizontal brow downward. The forehead crest, ears and figures on top of the head are unfamiliar and require more research.

It may be brass as stated, but until the metal is assayed this is a guess. The elemental analysis of a Senufo Kpelie mask at the Haffrenreffer Museum reveals that it was cast from a copper alloy that was neither brass nor bronze.