Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Guinea

The 350,000 Dan live mostly in the western part of the Côte d’Ivoire and into Liberia, where the land is forested in the south and bordered by a savannah in the north. They make their living from farming cocoa, coffee, rice and manioc. They also live off game and fish. The Dan have the reputation of being fierce warriors, always battling their neighbors, the We, the Guro, and the Mano. From a cultural viewpoint the Dan are close to the We populations situated in forest regions of the south, and against whom they have waged innumerable wars.  Lacking a central authority, the various groups had neither a political institution nor unity. The village is under authority of a chief and a council of elders. In addition, there were male associations that attempted to bring about a socio-political unity, reinforcing rules of behavior, demanding absolute loyalty and obedience from members, and giving an initiatory education to the young. These societies called upon the tutelary spirits of the bush. The most powerful, even today, is the secret society of the leopard, the go, which, without having fully achieved its stabilizing and unifying goal, nevertheless grows from one year to the next. The leopard society acts as a major regulator of Dan life and initiates young men during their isolated periods of three to four months in the forest. In order to attain adult status, all the boys and girls of the same age-group undergo an initiation that includes, in addition to specific teaching, circumcision for the former and clitoridectomy for the latter. To underline the transitional aspect of this trial, it takes place in the world of the bush – the realm inhabited by spirits who, like the ancestors, can play a mediating role between humans and supreme being Zran.

Dan people have achieved notoriety for their entertainment festivals, which were village ceremonies, but are today performed largely for important visitors. During these festivals, masked performers dance on stilts. The go master, the head of the like-named society possesses the masks and guards them in a sacred hut.  All Dan masks are sacred; they do not represent spirits of the wilderness, they are these spirits. Dan masks are characterized by a concave face, a protruding mouth, high-domed forehead and are often covered in a rich brown patina. There are a variety of Dan face masks, each of which has a different function. They may be the intermediaries, who acts between the village and the forest initiation camp, may act against bush fires during the dry season, used in pre-war ceremonies, for peace-making ceremonies, for entertainment. Over time, many among them have lost their original function and have been recycled into contexts related to entertainment, emerging only for festivals or events organized for visitors. Nonetheless, the great masks live on, their even more rare appearances being reserved for times of tension, when it is important they may exercise their role of social control and their faculty to reduce conflict or settle legal wrangles. The Dan also carried small masks (less than 8”), which are sometimes called ‘passport’ masks. They were sewn onto a piece of cloth and kept in a leather pouch and possibly worn in the small of the back. They are miniature copies of a family mask and sometimes received libations. These masks also act as witnesses during initiation ceremonies and protect the owner when he is away from home. Dan masks are the real treasures of African art tradition, ranging in their expressive powers from gentle tenderness to fierce aggression.

The Dan statues are not representation of ancestors or spirits. These figures, which were commissioned by powerful chiefs as three-dimensional portraits of their favorite spouses function as maternity figures with babies on their back. They are kept hidden inside houses and are only revealed during important occasions such as visits by foreign dignitaries.  

A woman who has distinguished herself through her hospitality and generosity will own a superb spoon of sculpted wood. This is a custom specific to the Dan. This woman’s role, in the heart of the village, is to receive and feed travelers, musicians participating in celebrations, and men who have come to help clear the fields. The spoon possesses the power to make one rich and famous and confers a sure authority over the other women. The spoons have several shapes: the most usual one has a handle fashioned after a human head, comparable to certain masks; others have handles that form pairs of legs.

The carvers also produce chiefs' staffs and female figures that seem to be prestige items, as are small figures cast in brass.

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