Art of Africa


singer mask

"Singer" dance mask, early 20th century
Ivory Coast (We)
Wood, bells, fiber, chalk
11 3/4 x 9 1/2 inches
Gift of Richard J. Faletti Family Collection 2000-5-1

Throughout the cultural regions of Liberia and the Ivory Coast, where the We language is spoken, face masquerades have played a central role in all areas of life and government. Masks with slit, elliptical eyes painted over in white are considered "female," while those with round or projecting tubular eyes are "male." The white paint symbolizes the kaolin that is often used to decorate young girls' eyes as they go through initiation practices. Kaolin used to be a part of a daily cosmetic routine in We-speaking cultures, and signifies both beauty and an absence of hostility. The vertical ridge on the forehead of this mask is an ethnic marker of northern We cultures, while the semi-circular relief that links the nostrils to the temples is a scarification pattern specific to We women.

The brass bells on this We mask, together with the generic female features, mark it as either a "singer" or a griot ("poet and musician") mask. The purpose and visual character of a We mask can change over time. It is the headdress and other attachments that establish a mask's particular character and its position in the masquerade hierarchy. The more important the spirit mask, the more elaborate the crowning and framing of the "face" with natural and fabricated materials. A We mask with generic female features such as this may begin life as a low-ranking "beggar" dance masquerade used strictly for entertainment, to earn money for its owner's family by its antics, and to sing the praises of notables. The same carved mask can move up in the hierarchy through successive transformations of form and repeated performance, evolving into a "singer" or, in some cases, into a "griot" masquerade. Such masks are sacred keepers of We history and cultural traditions.

Each "singer" masquerade has a "life history." Passed down from one generation to another within a family lineage, a "singer" builds its language skills and repertory of texts as it increases in age, reputation, and sanctity. Very old "singer" masks are venerated as the "mothers" of younger "singer" masks.

Text by Anita J. Glaze, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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