"Masks of the Ivory Coast"
No one produces a wider variety of masks than the people of the Ivory Coast. Masks in great abundance are produced by the Baule, Guro, Yaure, Dan, and Senufo groups. The Yaure live in close proximity to the Baule, and the art of both groups show stylistic cross-fertilization. Both produce highly refined, masterfully carved items. If pieces are carved with less skill than those presented in this collection, they are likely produced by apprentices who are just learning their craft, or were produced for sale to Europeans and were never intended to be used in ceremonies.
Masks are used to represent the souls of deceased people, lesser dieties, or even caricatures of animals. The ownership of masks is restricted to certain powerful individuals or to families. Only specifically designated, specially trained individuals are permitted to wear the masks. It is dangerous for others to wear ceremonial masks because each mask has a soul, or life force, and when a person's face comes in contact with the inside of the mask that person is transformed into the entity the mask represents.
Many masks are restricted as to who can view them. In some instances, only initiates of certain secret societies can witness masked ceremonies. Women are not permitted to gaze on certain masks, and some masks can not be viewed by "outsiders." On the other hand, some masks may be seen by anyone as the dancer performs at public festivals.
Masks may be used in initiations, weddings, funerals, judicial proceedings, law enforcement activities, ceremonies to ward off witches and sorcerers, agricultural ceremonies, or merely for entertainment. Some masks may have multiple purposes and, in some cases, the use of the mask is known only to those who share the secrets of specific societies. Except for the women of the Sande secret society in Liberia and Sierre Leone, the masked performers are men.
When viewing the masks in this collection, as well as those in settings such as museums and art galleries, please be aware that what you are seeing is only part of the regalia used in ceremonies. You are viewing the piece out of cultural context. These items were not created to hang on a wall. They were made to perform a particular ritual function in the society. Each item that we, in Western context, refer to as "mask" is incomplete. In cultural use, each would be part of an elaborate costume, to which the mask is attached. Furthermore, many masks were seen only at night. Some were never seen at eye level, and most were never meant to be seen standing still. They were part of a dynamic performance accompanied by music, dancers and singers, as well as religious leaders.
Presented in this exhibit are masks of the Ivory Coast. These are not tourist masks, but masks made for use in ritual ceremony. As usual, we hope you will find the exhibition both entertaining and educational, and that you will enjoy the beauty and power that lives as part of African art.
Please sign the Gallery guest book, and tell us what you think of the show and how you found this exhibit (which search engine, link from what other site, etc.). Persevere to the end of the exhibit and you will find some of our favorite links to other Web sites showing African art and masks from other cultures.