This remarkable oval-shaped mask, with its striking resemblance to a human face, belongs to the group of naturalistic Dan face masks.
- Former Paul Guillaume collection (1891-1934), Paris
- Former Domenica Walter-Guillaume collection, Paris, 1934-1965
- Paris, Drouot, Former Paul Guillaume Collection. Art Nègre [African Art], 9 November 1965, lot no.124
- Private collection, Paris between 1965 and 2014
- Christie’s, Paris, 19 June 2014, lot no. 156
- Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection
- musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.25), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.
The work’s original context
In north-eastern Liberia and north-western Côte d’Ivoire, the Dan culture is shared by around 350,0001 people. They are farmers who also practice hunting and fishing depending on their location; in the north they live in a low mountain region marked by savannah vegetation and, in the south, in forested areas of plateaus and hills.
The Dan speak a language of the Mande region, from which they originate. They are thought to have begun to migrate from what is now Mali in the 8th century and have settled in the region on a stable basis in the 18th century2.
This people, famous for its exploits in war, introduced the display of aggressive masks with “cubist” deformities before going into battle. These masks frequently played a role at important moments in the life of the community: for the security of property and persons, boys’ education, sports competitions and entertainment, and during political and judicial decisions3. Dressed in elaborate costumes, wearing naturalistic or stylised wooden faces, the masks wearers acted as “agents of social control”4.
4 Fischer, 2015, p. 108.
An ancient mask?
Dan face masks
According to Dan beliefs, a spirit called Dü can deliver messages in dreams, particularly to dictate the design of masks5. Imbued with a supernatural power that resides in the forest, the spirit is said to express its wish to participate in the life of the community through face masks.
“Each mask is considered to be an individual with its own name and the embodiment of a specific spirit.”6 The spirit, which is not an ancestor7, reveals its identity through the name given to it. For this reason, only the holders of a mask can explain its use and name, elements not determined by the form of the sculpture alone.
The mask in the gifted collection is remarkable for the furrowed wrinkles on its forehead, which could represent an elderly person, “which is rare in Africa”8. To date, only one Dan mask from Liberia, made from light-coloured wood, from the former Durand-Dessert collection, has illustrated this characteristic.
In a Dan-Tura mask from Côte d’Ivoire, the entire forehead is also incised with motifs, but these are vertical and could be more akin to scarification marks such as those shown on the temples and upper cheeks. The sculpting of the nose, the volume of the mouth, the presence of scarifications on the cheeks and the very protruding ears are other elements in common with the mask at the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, the latter having retained only one ear.
The sculpture can also be compared to the mask with the seeping black patina, of Dan or Mano origin, due to the similar details: small protruding ears, scarifications in parallel lines under the eyes, and the small teeth, which were also present on the Paris mask but have now disappeared.
The scarification on the cheeks, the small protruding ears and the relief of the face all place the mask’s provenance in the north of the Dan country, among the Mano or the Tura, in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire.
The mask’s expression determines the gender to which it belongs. Narrow eyes, harmonious features and proportions similar to those of the human face characterize female masks, whose presence is felt to be “graceful” and “gentle”9. When the mask expresses violence and anger, the sculptor uses round eyes, geometric volumes, in some cases distorted human and/or animal representations, and aggressive expressions, all signalling that the mask belongs to the male gender.
The mask in the Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection may have expressed both genders successively, having being transformed from female to male. Indeed, at the back of the mask, old traces can be seen where wood has been chipped off around the eyes, which would suggest a modification of this part of the sculpture. A female entertainment mask, from the former Emil Storrer collection, evidently suffered the same fate.
Dating of the object
Wear, accidents, and the surface of the wood, especially the patina, give the impression that this very light sculpture10 is one of the oldest known in the corpus of Dan masks. Its owner, art collector and dealer Paul Guillaume, emphasised its great antiquity, claiming that the mask dated from the 5th century! Recent carbon-14 dating of the wood has made it possible to situate the sculpture between 1750 and 1850; the mask was handed down from generation to generation.
The presence of old masks was noted by European specialists of the region: “It is unthinkable to discard old face masks which have ceased to appear in masquerades. Old or damaged face masks are copied by a distinguished sculptor and the mask spirit is entreated to accept the new face. The old face mask must nevertheless be cared for with respect until it disintegrates or family interest has slackened.”11
Certain masks are entrusted to dignitaries of the lineage12 and handed down from generation to generation. Although the name of the spirit remains, the mask may take on a different function when used13.
Possible uses of the masks
Among the female masks, identifiable by their slit eyes, some bear details similar to those of the mask in the donated collection. Thus, in north-eastern Liberia, tankagle entertainment masks bear scarifications on the cheeks.
Accompanied by musicians and choirs, the tankagle entertains and sings, while telling proverbs14. It acts, converses and sometimes dances with the audience or its owner. This type of mask is handed down from generation to generation15 within the same family.
A tanka mask dances with its owner. Côte d’Ivoire, village of Bagamaplö. © Eberhard Fischer
Young boys were once required to withdraw for three months for a compulsory initiation marked by circumcision16.
A special female mask was associated with this occasion, named deangle, meaning “masquerade for laughing and joking”. According to Fischer and Himmelheber, it would leave the initiates’ seclusion area on a daily basis, with its interpreters, and go to the village to bring back the meals. The mask was not accompanied by music or singing, but its graceful movements and taste for joking pleased the women17.
The female deangle mask from the circumcision camp comes to collect meals for the young boys. Liberia, village of Nyor Diaple. © Museum Rietberg, Zurich
The mask’s narrow eyes were highlighted with a painted white band or framed with a metal appliqué. The mask in the collection may at one time have been an initiatory mask, but this element has since been chipped off if so.
Within the corpus of initiatory masks, the authors observed that on certain circumcision masks, in the northern Dan country, “the vertical frontal ridge on the forehead is replaced by three parallel scars on the cheeks”18, a distinctive feature also seen on the mask in the gifted collection.
Exclusively in northern Dan country, male masks known as zakpei ge used to make appearances during the dry season, visiting the women at the hottest times of the day in order to supervise the fires in the kitchens. The mask neither danced nor sung during its inspections, but made its rounds accompanied by an assistant carrying a gong19. The women were required to extinguish all fires before its arrival.
This type of mask is recognizable by its round eyes, which are slightly smaller than those of the racing masks described below. They were painted or covered with a red cloth and sometimes bore a beard or moustache.
The traces of pigment around the eyes of the mask in the donation and the part chipped off could have come from the thick circle characteristic of the small round eyes of zakpei ge masks.
A final possible use is that of a Gunyege racing mask20, recognisable by its round eye holes.
In the dry season, this mask takes part in weekly racing competitions between a masked and a non-masked runner. The winner wins the right to wear the mask. At the end of the season, a champion is declared.
The mask in the collection may have been transformed into a racing mask after having played the role of a female entertainment or initiatory mask21.
The Dan sculptor
In the Dan country, all males can become sculptors. They undertake an apprenticeship lasting several years with a professional, who may or may not be a member of the family circle. Mask carvers, called gle nye mä, have their own status among woodcarvers. The most famous among them earn the “honorary title of zo (master)”22.
Dan society is very hierarchical and places great value on tin: prestige or renown. Artistic mastery and talent make it possible to acquire this reputation23.
The most famous sculptors were, and today can still be, semi-itinerant craftsmen who only worked to commission and, in most cases, on site at the location where the work is commissioned.
In the specific case of mask carving, prohibitions such as sexual abstinence must be scrupulously complied with.
The mask performers, in contact with the force of the Dü spirits, inform the person commissioning the work and then the sculptor of the manifestation desired by the spirit. They indicate the name, type, characteristics, etc. “The material used is always green wood and the tree species chosen depends on the object. As the masks are generally carved from a trunk split lengthwise, while the face is fashioned on the rounded side”24. Once executed, the mask is often coated with “a black vegetable stain”25.
In addition to making new masks, in particular for annual circumcision rites and showings of entertainment masks, the sculptors repair and coat masks with oil, as well as replacing old masks with copies.
History of the work and its background
The West discovered Dan art for the first time at the turn of the last century. The territory had just been identified by a French military mission led by Lieutenant Woeffel, who “also brought back the first samples of the material culture of the Dan” presented at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle26.
In the course of the following decade, conflicts, explorations and negotiations led to the delimitation of the western borders of the French colony of Côte d’Ivoire with independent Liberia; many Dan objects - a culture now divided between these two new countries - left the territory for Paris. These naturalistic face masks attracted aesthetes, notably the influential collector and art dealer Paul Guillaume (1891-1934).
From humble beginnings, Paul Guillaume was working in a garage on Avenue de la Grande Armée when, in 1912, he met Guillaume Apollinaire and antiques dealer Joseph Brummer. Attracted by the African sculptures displayed in the window of the business, the latter approached Paul Guillaume, already a lover of African objects, who was the initiator of the improvised exhibition of these African sculptures that had arrived in France in rubber crates. The encounter with Apollinaire turned into a firm friendship and subsequently determined the young man’s new career path. His tastes for and knowledge of African objects proved to be of interest to Apollinaire’s acquaintances, in particular the avant-garde artists. For his part, “it was his interest in objects from Africa that led him to modern art”27. Encouraged by Apollinaire, he became a dealer in African objects in 1912. He founded the Société d’art et d’Archéologie Nègre, which enabled him to establish closer relations with his main suppliers, colonials returning from Africa, on the one hand, and certain artists and intellectuals, on the other. His enterprise rapidly took off and, in 1914, he opened a gallery on Rue de Miromesnil where he sold African and Oceanic sculptures [presented under the name of “Art Nègre”] and works of modern art.
The same year, gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, assisted by Marius de Zayas, offered him a new opportunity: an exhibition of African art in New York. From that time on, Paul Guillaume constantly supplied pieces from Africa and Oceania to the American market, in addition to advising Philadelphia collector Albert C. Barnes from 1922 to 1929.
In Paris, in 1917, he moved his gallery to the prestigious Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
For his own collection, Paul Guillaume turned to objects from Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire, particularly Dan face masks.
In 1923, the Dan mask with the wrinkled forehead and broken ear - already part of his collection - was displayed for the first time in the exhibition “L’art indigène des colonies françaises et du Congo belge” [Indigenous art of the French colonies and the Belgian Congo] at the Musée des arts décoratifs. In 1930, Paul Guillaume loaned the object to the Galerie Pigalle, and then to London in 1933. Shortly after his death, the work was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the famous “African Negro Art” exhibition of 1935. Paul Guillaume had the words “Côte d'Ivoire, circa 5th century” inscribed under the base made by Kichizo Inagaki, which “helped advocate the idea of the great antiquity of African civilizations.”28
Although the mask is known to have been acquired by Paul Guillaume before 1923, no document concerning its precise origin remains: “The archives of Brummer and Guillaume shed little light on the matter; record books and other registers of purchases are non-existent or uninformative as to the source of their acquisitions. […] The dealer is thought to have sold around 3,000 African objects, of which a large proportion from Côte d’Ivoire... and there is not the slightest trace of these expatriates in the Gulf of Guinea selling their collections, on their return home.”29
In 1934, after Paul Guillaume’s death, the mask was kept by his widow Domenica Guillaume, who subsequently married the architect Jean Walter. The work “remained forgotten in an attic from 1934 to 1965”30 before being sold to an artist, who remained anonymous, at the Paul Guillaume sale in 1965. It was subsequently acquired by Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière in 2014 at Christie’s; in 2017, he donated this masterpiece to the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac.
26 Goy, 2012, p. 100.
Selective biography and cartography
Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.
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Fischer, Eberhard and Himmelheber, Hans, The Arts of the Dan in West Africa. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 1984.
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Neyt, François, Trésors de la Côte d’Ivoire : les grandes traditions artistiques de la Côte d’Ivoire. Brussels: Fonds Mercator, 2014.
Verger-Fevre, Marie-Noël, “Les peuples de l’ouest ivoirien”, in Barbier, Jean-Paul (ed.) Arts de la Côte d’Ivoire, vol. 1. Geneva: Musée Barbier-Mueller, 1993, pp. 128-143.
Verger-Fevre, Marie-Noël, “Masques en pays dan de Côte d’Ivoire”, in Barbier, Jean-Paul (ed.) Arts de la Côte d’Ivoire, vol. 1. Geneva: Musée Barbier-Mueller, 1993, pp. 144-183.