African Dan Passport Mask

This beautiful passport mask certainly contains Kaba Ko - an African term referring to marvellous things that can be looked upon without limit.


African Dan Masks are sacred objects. These passport masks functioned as a medium of communication between a person and their favoured ancestor. In their original context, miniature masks were integrated into a system of belief in which they functioned as spiritual guides and personal protectors. The Dan believe that their world is split into two domains: the human domain which is represented by the village and its people, and the spiritual domain which is represented by the forest and its spirits. These miniature masks were often carried for personal protection when living away from home, and in later years they were commonly understood to also function as a means of tribal identification. Asan Diop, of Abidjan, describes the role of passport masks:

Before Whiteman brought paper and pen to Africa, these small masks were the only form of identification that we African's could carry with us. Each person owned a carving of himself and each tribe had its own kind of masks. This is the only way people could cross the frontier between tribal groups.

In a culture where hierarchy was based upon skill, carvers were highly respected. The masks were generally carved from a local rubber tree and always dyed either black or brown. This was done according to a long and delicate process to which the Bassa artist remained faithful, using colour obtained by the decoction of forest leaves. Respected carvers would not sand the surface, but instead use their blades obliquely over and over again, generally lifting off shavings invisible to the layman's eye. The masks often acquire celebrated 'natural patina', from their exposure to the elements or frequent handling.

The beautiful depth of patina and the marvellous ability for such a small figure to attract ones attention further emphasises the mystery and power of this ''passport''.

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