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Miniature masks of the Dan (Ivory Coast)

Various miniature masks from Liberia and Ivory Coast. On loan to the Yale University Art Gallery from James J. Ross collection. Image: BC, November 2009.
Various Dan, Mano, Bassa, Toma, Kpelle (and others) miniature masks from Liberia and Ivory Coast. On loan to the Yale University Art Gallery from the James J. Ross collection. Image: BC, November 2009.

Despite the huge amount of literature about the dominant role masks play in the culture of the Dan, there are still a lot of misconceptions about the nature and function of their miniature masks. The short essay below describes the findings of Pieter-Jan Vandenhoute’s fieldwork among the Dan in 1938-39 and was written by me for Refined Eye, Passionate Heart: African Art from the Leslie Sacks Collection (info).

The Dan of the Ivory Coast called these little masks nyonkula or ‘substitute for the ancestors’. Literally this can be translated in ‘ancestral spirit’ or ‘wooden dish’, refering to the possible stuffing of the back with magical ingredients. Because of the small measures, these masks mainly served an individual and private use. Sometimes they were called genone; literaly ‘small mask’ or ‘child of the mask’. This reduced size only had a practical reason and the specific shape of the mask had no influence on its function. These miniature masks were kept hidden from public display. Woman and uninitiated boys were not allowed to see them. Nyonkula replicated the variety of existing Dan face masks, although the feminine mask-type with narrow eyes predominated. Sometimes these small masks replaced a larger one, notwithstanding they certainly were as powerful. Although they always coexisted, the production of small masks probably was facilitated by the colonial authorities imposed ban on the use of larger face-masks. The artistic quality of these small masks widely difered. They were considered easy to carve, so many attempted to it. As the three examples in the Sacks collection show, well-carved and well-treated nyonkula can be miniature works of art, having acquired a fine patina from being ‘fed’, rubbed with oil, and carried around for a long time.

The Dan used these small masks to secure the consent and support of the supernatural world through their ancestors. These ancestors were the direct representatives and mediators of the living in the supernatural world, primarily for their own relatives. With these miniature masks the living strove to please their ancestors to make them positively sympathetic towards their acts. At the core of this cult was the private sacrifice on the mask. The nyonkula were activated by ‘feeding’ them: imposing, rubbing or attaching all sorts of specific offerings, raw or prepared food, beverages, tobacco, palm oil, palm wine and blood of sacrificed animals. Next to the daily spitting or tossing of chewed or split kola nuts, offerings were made for a favourable outcome in all current affairs, such as hunting, trapping, discussions, etc., or to find out whether the ancestors agreed with a certain endeavor. For more important matters, such as illness, death, and voyages, the consulted native priest would determine the nature and measure of the offerings. Disease and infertility of land or women were the most common causes. During these rites the repeatedly reciting of improvised formulas explained and clarified the desired end. The gifts were donated to the mask as an intermediary, but were for the deceased ancestor. Those who possessed a nyonkula always carried it with them in the village or while travelling as a protective charm. In time, nyonkula, just by their presence, also were accredited with a repellent and protective force. After a while, the distinction between the ancestral offerings and the sacrifices for the mask itself completely vanished. Sometimes the offerings were for the intermediating ancestors, sometimes it was the wooden mask itself who was the recipient of the sacrifice. Both aims were equally worthy and it happened all too often that both causes were simultaneously honored during the same offering.

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