Dan , Objet art of the ethnic Dan - African-art.net
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Dan masks are classic in type and generally characterized by a faithful, if not idealized representation of the human face. They have certain fundamental aesthetic criteria including:  a very high and rounded forehead, a thin mouth ( an aristocratic criteria of the Dan), and protruding cheekbones.

In contrast, Guere masks have an expressionist style. Guere masks are characterized by distortions in the treatment of the face or parts of the face, leading to typically extravagant characteristics: this might be the forehead, the cheekbones, the mouth, the nose or the eyes.

Wooden masks are great in number. They embody the supernatural spiritual force called ‘gle’, that lives in the woods and wishes to participate in the lives of the village men.

Dan statues are powerfully modelled and generally represent a woman. The body is robust, in a standing position with the arms dangling.

The Dan live to the north east of Liberia and to the north west of the Ivory Coast, in regions that are covered by forest in the south and by the savannah in the north. The Dan are a farming people that regularly clear the forest land in order to obtain new fields. They cultivate rice and some manioc. They also survive by hunting and fishing.

The Dan have the reputation of being hardened warriors and they are frequently in struggles with their neighbours the We, the Gouros to the south and also the Mano.

The initiation, which means circumcision for the boys and excision for the girls, constitutes both a fundamental and inevitable stage in their lives.

The Guere people (or Kran or Wee) live in a region next to the Dan, in the western Ivory Coast and to the north of Liberia.

The Organisation of Dan Society

The Dan society is a patrilineal one where the power belongs to the elders. Initiation, with circumcision for the boys and excision for the girls is a fundamental stage in all of their lives.


The Dan lived without any form of central or political unity, or institutions, up until the end of the 19th century when the Leopard Society (or Go) was created.


The village was made up of several clans, each grouped around a chief chosen for his personality, his military prowess, and farming skills. This union was very fragile and a Dan was easily capable of moving on to live elsewhere. The frequent attacks on the village meant that solid defenses were necessary and these were assured by young warriors looking to acquire the certain prestige attached to this activity. Surprise attacks were often carried out to ‘stock up on’ slaves to feed their cannibalism. The chief of the village had to answer to the council of elders which also held considerable power. In order to climb the social ladder the clan chiefs organized large festivals and distributed presents. Clearly, they had to be rich to be powerful.

Today, it is no longer possible to make a name for oneself through war or to found a community without government authorization. Acquiring prestige however, remains an essential objective in the lives of the Dan people and can be summed up by: prestige, celebrity, and success. This type of lifestyle leads to an overzealous individualism, and a  strong presence of hierarchical structure, notably in the various secret societies, associations of dancers, mask wearers and artisans.

Initiatory Societies within the Dan People


Along with the chief of the village and the council of elders there also existed male associations or societies which attempted to reinforce socio-political unity. With this aim in mind they imposed very strict rules and demanded complete loyalty and obedience from their members. They also dispensed an initiatory education to young people which lasted for about four months. These societies called upon the bush spirits. The Leopard Society remains the most powerful of these societies today. It has not yet achieved its goal of stabilizing and unifying  society, however, its influence reaches further and further from year to year, spreading outwards from its initial implantation point in the north east of the country. The society is a cult that worships the pacifying and powerful spirit called ‘goggle’. The characteristics of the goggle vary from one village to another. Sometimes, an existent mask may have its original usage changed to embody the goggle. Both the owner and the wearer of the mask have very important status in the hierarchy. The women also receive an initiation that culminates in excision.

Dan Religious Beliefs

For the Dan, masks are the spirits of the bush and not solely their representatives. Their appearance, during masked ceremonies or festivals, serves to bring an end to conflicts that have not been resolved by the village chiefs.

The Dan believe in a world split into two spheres:

  • That of the village with its inhabitants, and its implements and infrastructures created by man.
  • That of the forest with its wild animals, spirits, and the fields that need to be cleared.

To cross the line between these two worlds could be dangerous.

 Zlan created the world from mud that he moulded with his own hands. He is unattainable. Because of this, Du is called upon, a powerful spirit that is invisible but omnipresent. This powerful spirit leaves the body at a man’s death and waits for him to be reincarnated into the world of the dead. Dreams are the means of communication between Du and man.


Dan Masks


Wooden masks are commonplace. They embody the supernatural spiritual power called ‘Gle’ which lives in the forest and wishes to participate in the lives of the men in the village. Being invisible it must appear in a dream to the initiate and reveal its complete form and its function.  The initiate then informs the council of elders of his dream and they decide if the moment is right to have the mask made and whether to allow it to be worn by the initiate who had the dream.

Dan masks are characterized by a concave face, a pointed chin, a protruding mouth, a high forehead, and are often covered by a rich brown patina. There exist various types of Dan masks each having different and very specific functions.

Every significant event in the community requires the presence of a mask. It is possible to distinguish a great number of different types of masks, and although their functions may differ they often share formal elements.

  • Masks dedicated to the ancestors. Amongst the Dan and the Guere there are masks that although not directly linked to the Poro still maintain a personal dimension. These masks are sculpted after the death of an ancestor to act as a receptacle for his soul and to bring good to his descendants, who in exchange offer prayers and sacrifices. These masks had their representative in Poro society, this was a large feminine mask ‘the mother of all masks’.
  • The deangle is a feminine mask, kind, oval in form, and with almond shaped eyes that are sometimes covered in a strip of white kaolin. The forehead is divided by a vertical roll that goes down to the nose. The protruding lips are often half open and reveal several metal teeth. This mask may serve as an intermediary between the village and the young people that are being initiated; in this case it is called: bonagle. The bonagle doesn’t dance or sing, but jokes with the women who are collecting food for the initiates.
  • The tankagle mask, worn during certain festivities, is quite similar to a deangle mask, but it’s bigger and has more detailing.
  • The bagle has two tubular eyes, a low forehead, with moustaches and a skull crowned with horns. This mask is intended to make people laugh with its grotesque behavior. During festivities its role is to amuse the villagers: its wearer throws objects at the spectators and hits the musicians with a bent stick.
  • The kagle has two triangular holey eyes, and a forehead eyebrows and cheekbones sculpted in heavy relief. It enjoys itself by hitting the audience with a stick who in turn must try to avoid it.
  • Instructor masks gave a remedy in order for a man to gather together all his belongings to pay off a debt. They would go to the village to find food and bring it to the initiates when they were on retreat in the forest. They gave advice on the village’s general hygiene and taught respect towards elderly people…
  • The gunye ga or racer mask is a masculine mask. It is often red with a face that is pointed at the bottom, and round eyes with holes that are blackened underneath. Tradition has it that its wearer is chased by an unmasked runner; if he is caught he must give the mask over to the winner, who in turn is chased by another runner. In the past, these races served to train men for running and combat, but today they are just practiced for fun.
  • The zapkai mask is quite similar to the gunye ga mask, but it is differentiated by some red cloth stuck on the eyes. Its face is red and it has harsh looking eyes. It reacts against forest fires during the dry season. At sunrise during the dry season, it verifies the villager’s huts to check that all the fires have been put out. If this is not the case it breaks a pot of food and takes a household object with it as security against a fine that the husband will have to pay in order to retrieve the object.
  • Masks with zoomorphic features: The animals of the forest have an immense vital force and they are both feared and venerated. Masks depicting birds of prey, elephants, hornbills, leopards…combined with elements of the human face are made. For example, the Gacon represents the hornbill (God’s first creature), he has a beak and moustaches. 
  • The weplirkirgle has protruding tube shaped eyes. It is burdened with a handicap and nobody must make fun of it even if its movements give cause to laugh.
  • The bugle has the important task of blessing and escorting warriors or hunters. It can be recognized by its oversized mouth with big teeth. It has tube shaped eyes with a thick black patina, a row of horns on its forehead and, if it has been conserved, a large headdress with black feathers and a fan that is held in its hand. It dances with passion, showing its strength, and sometimes with somebody on its shoulders. During battles this mask is continually in motion to avoid arrows.
  • The dugle mask, also called ‘the cow’, with its high forehead and immense mouth that looks like a beak. This mask is worn for important festivities.
  • The gagon mask has the same function as the dugle but is found mostly in the north of Dan regions. It has a high forehead, almond shaped eyes, a large nose in the shape of a beak and on which is attached a piece of fur and a moveable mouth.
  • The glewa mask is worn during peace treaty ceremonies. Large in size, it represents either an elephant’s head with tube shape eyes and a forehead separated by a median line, or a human face with exaggerated traits.
  • The go ge mask belongs to the eldest of the Poro ancestors. It presides over the assemblies that discuss the affairs of the village. It’s laid on the ground and covered with a white cloth. Decisions are taken in its presence. At the death of its owner it is passed down to the owner’s son or more often his nephew. A human sacrifice is offered at the moment of the succession. It is characterized by protruding eyes with porcelain or metal disks, the lips are decorated with red felt, a long beard with glass beads and some seeds. It is covered with a sacrificial patina.
  • Among the Dan of Liberia Go ge, (called Gaa Wree Wre), it represents ideal justice.  In the past, it was capable of putting an end to wars, but today it rules over serious conflicts. This mask is made out of blackened wood, has slit eyes with kaolin. A vertical protruding mark decorates the forehead. Its pointed hairstyle is covered with dark blue and red cloth decorated with cowries. The forehead is topped with a tiara made from cowries and blue and red pearls, and leopard’s teeth and bells are attached to its chin. All of these elements are signs of prestige. The red represents the high rank of the mask, red being the colour of blood and of the leopard. In contrast to the Go ge , Gaa Wree Wre never dances. It remains seated next to an interpreter who translates its answers (told in an obscure language originating from the spirits) to the person who has come to it with a problem.
  • The Kao gle mask has accentuated features, with a protruding forehead, set in eyes, and cheeks with pyramid shaped protrusions. It tries to frighten people with its behaviour. Kao gle is a good mask that takes on the role of a policeman, and acts as an assistant to go ge. When it appears in public it is accompanied by an orchestra, and chases away witches. Another of its functions is to clean the pathways. In the past when a man lost his self control, Kao gle would make him pay a large fine.
  •  ‘Messenger’ masks: these masks are the assistants of more important masks and replace them when relaying the wishes of their superiors throughout the villages. They can also announce the opening of a Poro, escorting the boys that are going to be circumcised…
  • The Dan  also wear small masks ( less than 20cms high) called passport masks and  which are sewn on a piece of cloth and kept in a little bag or attached to the bottom of a man’s back. They are generally copies of family masks and can also carry libations. These masks serve to redirect evil spells towards other people and also to act as witnesses during initiation ceremonies.
  • Miniature Ma masks. Every man of a certain standing has one. It is never seen by his wife, but every morning he prays to the mask so that it may bring him luck and keep away evil spirits. Only one woman has a miniature mask, and that is an elderly woman  belonging to the male society of the Poro and who owns a ‘mother mask’ and a female Janus statue.
  • Entertainment masks Their features contain some zoomorphic elements, some are kind with feminine traits, others hit the spectators… they are brought out at harvest time or to entertain the villagers.


The Style of Dan Masks


Dan masks are classic in type and are generally characterized by a faithful if not idealized representation of the human face. They have certain fundamental aesthetic criteria including:  a very high and rounded forehead, a thin mouth (a criteria of aristocracy among the Dan), and protruding cheekbones.


In contrast, Guere masks have an expressionist style. Guere masks are characterized by distortions in the treatment of the face or parts of the face, leading to typically extravagant characteristics: this might be the forehead, the cheekbones, the mouth, the nose or the eyes.


As much with the Dan as with the Guere, there is a noticeable tendency to incorporate fanciful and heterogeneous elements in to the anthropomorphic face. This might be a bird’s beak, ears or other wild animal characteristic, some horns…


The Style of Guere-Wobe Masks


All the traits of the face are abnormally enlarged in an expressionist manner. The forehead is embossed with a vertical ridge. The eyes are horizontally split spheres or cylinders. The nose is bulky and sometimes hooked. The large mouth is either naturalistic, or made up of a demi- sphere that is often articulated. Its teeth made out of metal, real animal or human teeth. The ears are shaped like human ears or otherwise resemble those of goats, warthogs or antelope. Where there are two pairs of cylinders on top of each other, one represents the eyes and the other the cheekbones. Warthog tusks can be found either between the eyes and the forehead or between the nose and the mouth. Even masks that have a monkey like appearance are still considered anthropomorphic masks.

There are three sub styles:

-        Dan-Guere: the forehead and the cheekbones are accentuated. The eyes are triangular or oval holes without prominent borders. The top of the forehead often has a frieze decorated with antelope horns. The prominent cheekbones are pointed or rounded.

-        Flanpleu : the patina is deep and glistening. The top part of the eyelids is prominent and in the form of a quarter circle. The lower part is a thin horizontal ridge. The mouth is fleshy with a very puckered top lip. A frieze with antelope horns decorates the forehead.

-        Koulime : very expressionistic. The traits of the face (round eyes, nose, mouth) are heavily accentuated.


Masks of a Periphery Style to the Dan and Guere-Wobe

These masks have been influenced by the two main Dan and Guere-Wobe groups.


Masks from the Northern Regions

This mask is similar to the classic Dan style. It has a very pure oval form with a thin shell.  The articulation of the volumes of the face is nuanced. The forehead is slightly rounded and takes up half the face height. The eyes are often rounded and sometimes defined by a shallow  border  in relief  painted, with white earth or covered in shiny metal. The round eyes and the accentuated cheekbones are characteristic of the male masks. Slit eyes are more characteristic of the female masks. They have a prognathic mouth, often without a cavity. This is either realistic or forms a diamond shape. Sometimes the teeth are made of strips of white metal, aluminum or copper and are fixed to the upper lip. Some masks are so naturalistic that they look like portraits. Some masks also have zoomorphic features (bird’s beak, or more rarely horns).These masks are either guardians of fire or racer masks. Sometimes a bird’s beak mask has the beak replaced by a long nose. The patina is black, very smooth and glistening.


Masks of the Southern Regions

The Dan of this region live in dense forest and the geographic proximity of the Guere-Wobe has led to a strong expressionistic influence. The forehead is systematically decorated with a vertical rib that often goes down to the nose. These masks are less rounded and also have a narrower and less pointed chin than those from the north. The eyes are often slits and the mouth almost always has teeth. The small ears are sculpted at the same level as the eyes. There are also masks with rounded eyes, but in contrast to those from the north they are circled with a very thick edging. Finally, the patina, in contrast to those of the north, is made from blackish grey vegetable paint that can be more easily erased.


Dan Statues


These statues are powerfully modelled and generally represent a woman. The body is robust, in a standing position with the arms dangling.

There is not a great number of statues and they represent neither the ancestors, nor genies, but rather the portraits of favourite wives, commissioned to increase the prestige of their owner.

There also some statues dedicated to the cult of fecundity. These statues have a child standing either in front of or behind its mother. The child’s face is that of a little mask.

The face has an oval form, with narrow eyes, and expressive lips exposing several metal teeth on the upper gums. The features of the face are generally similar to those of the masks. The neck is decorated with several circular folds. The legs are short and the arms straight. Scarification marks decorate the belly. The hair is sculpted and sometimes has several fiber plaits.  The statue is decorated with small pieces of cloth or jewellery on both of the wrists and ankles. It can also be decorated with necklaces, earrings or bracelets.


Dan Spoons


A woman, well known for her hospitality, her general welcome and the quality of her cooking may own a sculpted wooden spoon. The woman’s role is to welcome and feed travellers, musicians as well as men that have come to help with clearing the fields. She can dance with her spoon and the spoon may make her rich or allow her to have influence over other women. Certain spoons have a handle decorated with a head, others a handle representing a pair of legs.

Amongst the Dan Guere, the spoon belongs to the chief’s wife. They use it to celebrate the initiation of their oldest son and to offer at this occasion, rice to the protecting ancestors, which will then be eaten by the villagers.


Dan Sculptors

The Dan have a stylistic unity that comes close to uniformity.

In the past, sculptors were rewarded with celebrations, food, or women. Their future was assured. They were given the gift of sculptor during a dream. They worked for chiefs that wanted to blind their hosts with the magnificence and the financial value of their sculptures.


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