Order in Identity: Masks of Ivory Coast's We People

Judgement Mask (Gla Kla’a), mid 20th Century
Guéré People; Ivory Coast, Africa
Wood, fabric, hair, metal, feather and paint; 13 in.
2002.59.4
Gift of James Carona
Chaos is part and parcel of the world in which we live. Entropic forces can take any number of forms, and though they usually cannot directly be battled, the We peoples of the southwestern forests of the Ivory Coast don masks to do just that. The secret initiation society built around the use of masks ceremonies, festivals, and more importantly in the enforcing of law is the Gla, which translates to ‘mask.’ Almost all We clans participate in the Glacult. This is especially true of the Guéré, one of the two major We subgroups, and the makers of this mask.  This mask was purported to be a judgement mask (Gla Kla’a), which is the greatest mask of all in the We hierarchy of masks and usually a lineage group’s oldest mask.
Alternative view of 2002.59.4. The holes are used to secure
the mask to the animator's face with fiber string.
The mythological history of the Gla societies is unique to lineage groups, and the individual origins vary from mask to mask. In some oral traditions the god of creation, Gnonsoa, seeking to elevate humans from a cycle of disorder, passed masks to humans by way of forest spirits. Alternatively, it is told that there was an interaction between bush spirits and lineage ancestors which resulted in the creation of the same. A third version explains that a woman, who were only associated with mask societies among the We, was given a mask and instructed by the bush spirits to bring it back to her village. No matter the origin, the masks became the embodiment of good spirits and with their power stemming from the synthesis of the natural chaotic forces of the bush and the ordered wisdom of ancestors. This same duality appears in a mask’s adornment. For example, the Bowers mask would draw strength from its manmade components like nails, metal teeth, and the lace-topped headdress, as well as spiritual energy from wild animal parts such as the feathers and quills attached just below the nose. Even unanimated and housed in a village’s repository of masks (kpan), they hold great power and all important decisions must be made before the them. When worn, the wearer is only a vessel for the mask’s power. When a wearer of an important mask dies, it is never formally celebrated and the successor is privately determined by Gla members.
Detail of 2002.59.4. Note the chicken's foot topping the mask.
Though this mask is alleged to have been a justice mask, it almost certainly began as a beggar mask (zro gla). Within the mask hierarchy, the beggar is the least powerful and most prolific. They are worn by recent initiates and serve to entertain through mimicry rather than enforce the laws. In appearance, many of these masks have female attributes paired with male attributes, something we can see in the Bowers’ mask. Bulbous eyes cut by slits, white paint as a traditionally female eye shadow, and a woman’s headdress are an odd pairing for the cow tail or human hair beard. Despite their low standing, these masks can become extremely important over time as in We mask society, longevity indicates prestige. Even a beggar mask can eventually rise to become a great mask, the highest tier of mask. Police masks (tee gla) are in the next hierarchical bracket and more directly address the true purpose of the Gla society, enforcing order. In appearance, these masks tend to be ominous and for good reason. Some variants such as the hitting mask can violently enforce the rules of a village, but more generally the police mask works through a system of fines. For example, should a police mask catch a woman cooking too close to dry grass he will confiscate her pot, only returning it after her husband pays a hefty fine. Great masks are visually distinguished by their old age rather than their shape, though the specific adornments used are added with time and often can provide insight into a mask’s role. In this category are war masks (te’e gla), sorcery masks (kbepo gla), and the solitary mask of wisdom, mentioned before by its other name, the judgement mask, which is the ultimate arbiter of a village’s most important disputes. So great is the renown of the mask of judgement that its decisions are uniformly seen as final. Even for a losing party the deliberation of a great mask is rewarded with gifts, indicating just how important masks are as a bridge between humans and order.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Tuesday, 18 February 2020

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