Miniature Mask

Bassa peoples

Not on view

Most Dan face masks genre, and those of the culturally related groups of Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia, are commonly executed in a miniature form, ranging in height between 6 and 20 centimeters. Even the largest miniatures are too small to be worn in front of the face, and they rarely exhibit any means by which they may be attached to anything. The most common mask type represented in such diminutive form is deangle (attractive mask with slit eyes, performs a feminine behavior) while the least common miniature forms are masks with tubular eyes and animal mouths.

Miniature masks bear many names: the most common is ma go (small head), but depending on scholarship it has also be named yi luo po (thing which water is poured over), gba po (thing which is fed), or nyonkula (substitute for the ancestors). Echoing the variety of names, they fulfill a variety of functions. Anyone who has a spiritual connection with a mask, or whose family owns an important mask, is entitled to commission a miniature. Rubbed with oil and food, they are wrapped up and kept on the owner’s body or among his possessions and function as portable and personal forms that share the power and protective force of the full-sized mask. Miniature masks are carved to embody tutelary spirits and serve as testimony to the presence of the spirit associated with a large masquerade. When a mask-owner is travelling, the miniature mask serves as an important means of identification outside his immediate community. This role that may have given it the commonly applied name of "passport mask."

Diviners can advise individuals to commission a miniature mask for preventative, protective, or curative purposes. Interestingly, some scholars have stated that although women do not ordinarily have access to masks, those from families that have a strong connection to a specific mask may commission these miniature versions as a means of retaining ties to their own family identity after they marry. 

In addition to being the property of one single individual, in certain instances miniature masks may also play a communal role in secret societies. They are among the sacred objects displayed at men’s society meetings to protect the men collectively, and can be shown to new initiates. On these occasions they are interpreted to be representations of the benevolent spirits associated with the most important masquerades of the area. They are used as sacred objects for taking oaths and for swearing to tell the truth. The miniature masks are often attached to other powerful objects such as leather pouches or antelope horns filled with medicines. In this context, their backs can also be stuffed with magical potent ingredients.

Whether personal or collective, miniature masks must be fed regularly to remain strong and able to help their owner. Food may be simply set before it, or the offering, such as rice or oil, may be rubbed or poured onto it. On special occasions a sacrificed chicken’s blood is spilled onto the mask. The range of offerings and use explain the variety observed in the miniature’s patinas.

Fischer, Eberhard and Himmelheber, Hans. The Arts of the Dan in West Africa. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 1984
Grootaers, Jan-Lodewijk and Bortolot, Alexander, Eds. Visions from the Forests: The Art from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Exh. Cat. Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Seattle and London: The University of Washington Press, 2014
Johnson, Barbara C. Four Dan Sculptors: Continuity and Change. Exh. Cat. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. M. H. de Young Memorial Museum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986
Vandenhoute, Pieter-Jan, 1938–1939 unpublished field notes, as cited by Claessens, Bruno in Refined Eye, Passionate Heart: African Art from the Leslie Sacks Collection. Amanda M. Maples Ed. Milano, Italy: Skira, [2013]

Miniature Mask, Wood, Bassa peoples

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