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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://www.dorotheum.com/en/auctions/auction-10892-tribal-art.html

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.