The Dan people live in the western part of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and eastern Liberia.  For the Dan people, a mask is more than just a face covering. The complete mask costume is comprised of a headdress, wide skirt made of palm fiber, and a cloth cape, which completely cover the wearer, hiding his body and validating the myth that the mask is a spirit of the forest, not a human being. The fiber represents the wild forest while the cloth represents civilized human society and the mask is a mediator between these two worlds.

Masks may be divided into several named categories such as kagle or deangle but each mask spirit is really seen as an individual with distinct physical attributes as well as character traits. Every mask spirit has a personal name as well as one or more praise names. Thus it is more relevant to ask “Who is that spirit” than to ask “What kind of mask is that?”

Excerpt from: Masquerades Among the Dan People, by William Siegmann (1943 - 2011)

Birthing a Mask

For many cultures, "The Mask" ... is the embodiment of Spiritual energy which can be invoked for ceremonial ritual.  The Mask, when worn, allows specific spiritual energy to be channeled and manifested in this physical realm.  The whole concept of the Mask is to represent the unseen realm of spirit- it is more than a dramatic display of dance, acrobatic skill or conjuring.  It is our human desire to connect the spirit world with the physical world.

The Mask is the full regalia of costume. The Mask used by indigenous cultures is never the wood carving as we are accustomed to seeing in museums, or art collections.  In fact, I have many African and Caribbean Masks hanging on my wall which I have collected over the years, always wondering - "what do they represent and how would these masks be used." 

Mask coverings may be created from wood, plant fibers, cloth or any other materials that may be aesthetic to the representation that is being channeled by the individual craftsperson. With each tribal tradition, characteristics do govern styles of masks, yet, even then, mask styles do evolve over time and the process of mask making is considered very transforming and dynamic. Children (primarily male) begin learning how to make masks at an early age and are mentored into the secret societies that govern the masks.

The artwork and styles may be very ornately carved with many symbolic images; yet, the wood mask is only one element of the Mask.  In it's full representation, "the mask" communicates messages or specifies an energy which can be manifested for the benefit of the community.  Some of the messages can be a satirical commentary of issues which need to be resolved or a highlighting certain behaviors which are sanctioned by cultural standards.  Sometimes the Mask are used appeasing the spirit world and petitioning blessings during harvest festivals. Through dance or movement, the masqueraders dramatize the message.  They often do not talk; however, when they do, its ethereal tone has a guttural sound.

Once the Mask is clothed on the designee, rituals and prayers are completed to invoke the spirit of the mask.  The Mask (not the designee) becomes the vessel of spirit communication; although some people would contend that both become the object of possession.

The Mask, conceals the human designee assigned to wear its costume.  In most traditions around the world, no part of the human body should be seen for many reasons: 1.) to protect the person wearing the costume from possession and 2.) to disguise the person who is wearing the costume.  In other cultures, the main costume will cover the face and most of the body.