New Materials and Contexts

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

LiberiaDan peoples

Ga Wree Wree (mask)

Wood, teeth, metal, cowrie shells, bells, beads, fiber, netting, and cloth

H. 50 cm (19 11/16")

Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company,


Change is inherent to much traditional African art and is not solely dependent upon external stimuli. Many art forms are believed to be alive and therefore are subject to the same kinds of biographical changes to which a person is subjected in a lifetime. Dan masks can shift in meaning, purpose, and form throughout the course of their own careers. A mask that survives for several generations may acquire new functions or gain status and notoriety just like a person. Additions may be made to the mask, such as a mustache or a head decoration, and the mask will behave in ways appropriate to its new identity. As one Dan spokesperson put it, “masks have mixed characters like human beings.” Dan masks must be treated with respect until they disintegrate. Prior to that, a distinguished artist copies the mask and entreats the spirit to accept the new face.