Category Archives: Poro Art

Liberia, 1931-33: The Collections of Alfred J. Tulk — New Exhibition Opening September 13, 2018

Liberia, 1931-33: The Collections of Alfred J. Tulk

Liberian Art Exhibition and Lecture, September 13, 2018 Fairview U. Art Museum

To discuss Alfred Tulk in perspective, one must first mention George Harley. We all have (or should have) in our libraries the works of Dr. George W. Harley: Notes on the Poro in Liberia and Masks as Agents of Social Control in Northeast LiberiaThese two seminal studies by Harley are the basis of much of our present day knowledge of the Poro men’s secret society of West Africa and of masks and masking traditions in Liberia. Almost unobtainable in their original, an excellent hardcover facsimile reproduction was printed in 2001 as 200 numbered copies, some of which are still available.

Harley, a physician, anthropologist, and collector traveled to Liberia from Durham, N.C., in 1926, cutting his way through the bush when there were no roads. He established a clinic at Ganta in NE Liberia near the Guinea border (Mano country) and ministered to the needs of the people in the region for thirty-five years. Because of the trust placed in him by Poro initiates, and through his anthropological training at Harvard, he slowly accumulated an immense knowledge and deep insight into the otherwise impenetrable secrets of the Poro. 

The American artist Alfred J. Tulk was Harley’s friend and old college roommate. He became noted as a muralist and later turned to abstract expressionism. He and his wife Ethel visited Harley for almost 2 years, from 1931-1933, staying with Harley’s family at the medical clinic at Ganta. During this time, Tulk journeyed extensively throughout this region, documenting his experiences with the material culture, art and rituals of early 20th c. Liberia, drawing and painting the natives and their secular and sacred rituals, and collecting masks, figures, and artifacts from mainly the Mano and Dan ethnic groups. Many of these objects went to the Peabody museum, and to public and private collections. Tulk carefully documented his experiences in his handwritten travel journal, chapter 9.

I became interested in Tulk when in 2001 I was able to obtain the Dan female figure that was presented to him by Paramount Chief Toweh in Toweh Town, Liberia. The presentation ceremony was documented in Tulk’s journal. Along with the figure was a copy of the journal typed from his handwrIting by his daughter Sheila. 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. I have edited and annotated Tulk’s Liberian journal (from the view of a Liberian art scholar, collector, and Poro men’s society specialist), and it will soon be published.

Coll. 1932
Height 17¼ inches (44 cm)

The upcoming exhibition at the Fairfield Museum is a welcome and overdue exposition of Tulk’s journey and his collecting, with a glimpse of Liberian art and culture in the early 1930s as seen through the eyes of an artist, as opposed to our customary readings from Harley and numerous other anthropologists, ethnographers, and scholars. I am looking forward to Christopher Steiner’s opening lecture, and to see some of the other materials collected by Tulk, as well as his drawings and paintings of the local people.

— Neil Carey




Secrecy: Journal of Poro Studies, 2(1), 1-9                                                  

Neil Carey


A Lead Alloy Mask from the Liberian Dan: The Poro Expansion Ritual


An all-metal face mask from Vonehta, Liberia, accompanied by its wooden agent mask, was assayed using pXRF to determine its elemental composition. It is a lead alloy consistent with casting by a Mande blacksmith using melted lead bullets from the colonial era. The reddish coloration of its oxidative coating appears to be from the application of camwood dye. This is the only known lead mask from sub-Saharan Africa. These two Bush Spirit masks played a central role in the ritual by which a Poro group expanded its political, social, and religious power to another group.

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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: 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)

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

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://

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.

Heritage Auction 14 November 2014

Heritage ‘s American Indian, Pre-Columbian, & Tribal Art Auction will be held in Dallas 14 November, with online access.

The African material begins with Lot 71258, and are mostly edged weapons and textiles.

Lot 71288 is a male Dan mask stripped of all its pigments and attachments, the bare light-colored wood having been cleaned and possibly polished in the past, ex Park Bernet December 1965.

Lot 71289 is a Dan ceremonial spoon with a clenched right hand carved at the tip of its handle.

Ebola Spreads to Mali

Ebola Update: Mali confirms first infection case

23 October 2014

Despite health officials in Mali checking people returning from the Ebola-hit countries in West Africa, the Mali government has confirmed the first case of Ebola in the country today.

A two-year-old girl had tested positive for the virus. She recently returned from neighboring Guinea. Patient Zero, the first known case of this new strain of Ebola that’s ravaging West Africa, was also a 2-year-old who died in December 2013 in Guédéckou, Guinea near where the borders of guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia intersect.

Almost 10,000 cases have since occurred, and 4,800 people have died of Ebola – mainly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone – since March 2014.

Speaking on state television on Thursday, Malian Health Minister Ousmane Kone said the infected girl was being treated in the western town of Kayes.

Kayes is near the border of Guinea-Bissau, 612 km (380 mi) by road from Bamako, and only 96 km (60 mi) from the border with Senegal.

Mali is now the sixth West African country to be affected by the latest Ebola outbreak. Nigeria and Senegal contained their small numbers of cases very quickly and efficiently, and are for the time-being Ebola-free. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone continue to experience exponential growth of the disease. Although the northern areas of Guinea have been the least hard-hit, they have reported cases, and the spread of Ebola across its porous borders with Mali and/or Guinea-Bissau was just a matter of time.

Kayes is nicknamed the “pressure cooker of Africa” due to its extreme heat. The town has been described as the hottest continuously inhabited town in Africa. The average daily high temperature in the city is 36 °C (97 °F), with temperatures usually peaking in April and May at an average of nearly 42 °C (108 °F).

Once a small village, it became the capital of French Sudan before being replaced by Bamako. It is still a hub for Senegalese commerce, and its proximity to Senegal and Bamako are a concern regarding further spread of Ebola transmission.

Kayes, Mali 2006

Kayes, Mali 2006

The second peak of Ebola in Sierra Leone is linked to viral spread to Kenema, a large city of an estimated 188,463 people (pre-ebola). Ebola occurring in Kayes, with a population of 127,368 in 2009, is of major concern. Also, it has an international airport, facilitating translocation of cases.

At the SE end of the infected region, as we’ve already noted, the only barrier keeping Ebola out of Ivory Coast is the Cavalla River. Given the porosity of the (closed) borders between Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Liberia, and the historical ease of migration across the borders as seen during the conflicts of the 1990s, it is odd that Ivory Coast has not yet reported a case. Underreporting may be at play.

Renovated Musée Picasso (Paris) Opens 25 October

Musée Picasso Reopens 25 October in Paris

Grebo Face Mask.

Grebo Face Mask.

The Picasso Museum in Paris reopens this Saturday, on 25 October (Picasso’s birthday), having been closed since 2009. Expanded to over five floors, the museum boasts more than 5,000 pieces of paintings, sculptures and prints, as well as Picasso’s personal archives.

Thanks to Bruno Claessens for the heads-up on this.