SAAM Interactive Experience
Mbulu Ngulu Reliquary Figures
Date: 19th-20th century
Geography: Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia
Medium: wood, metal, fiber, cowrie shells, glass beads, brass, bone, hand-woven cloth (the raffia skirt is not original)
(Click image for high resolution photo)
The Ga Wree Wree mask and costume come from the Dan People of Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire as highlighted in the map below. The Dan, also called Gio or Yakuba, are an ethnolinguistic grouping of people inhabiting the mountainous west-central Côte d'Ivoire and adjacent areas of Liberia. The Dan belong to the Southern branch of the Mande linguistic subgroup of the Niger-Congo language family.
What is a Ga-Wree-Wree Mask?
The Ga Wree Wree masquerade is one of judgement, in presiding over debate to create peace and understanding. Therefore the Ga Wree Wree mask is very different from most African masks for this mask does not dance - sometimes the mask can even be used while it sits alone with nobody inside. This is because the mask carries the heavy responsibility of right and wrong, of choosing punishments, and acting as an authority over communities. The mask is expected to act instead with sovereignty and an aged dignity. However, the Ga Wree Wree is still a spirit that is believed to be connected with nature itself; this is clear to onlookers through the usually animalistic language that is spoken by the masquerader that is then interpreted by somebody else in the community. These interpretations are then determined to be the final verdict on disagreements between people or villages, punishments against those who have committed social taboos, and keeping a general order within communities of people when a village leader is unable to gain control.
“Order can of course be imposed by brute authority. But traditional Dan seek social control through artistic and philosophic means, through a cult of masks” (Thompson, 159).
Photo by William Siegmann. February 1986.
Ga Wree Wree masks are made to be extremely spiritually powerful in order to accomplish these arduous tasks. The mask you see in the Savannah African Art Museum gallery is complete with animal hides, fur, hair, and many other organic materials. Unknown sacred materials are even sewn into the fabric of the costume. These materials lend spiritual power to the Ga Wree Wree in its important task of keeping order. Even the color lends to the power of the costume as the color red often connotes frightful majesty to the people of Dan, a color that accents the entire piece head to toe. Additionally, the cowrie shells and plastic beading can be interpreted as emblems of prosperity and trade, historically only the most important of community pieces would be decorated with such wealth. And finally the metal bells that line the chin and important aspects of the costume are believed to exist for more than simply entertainment’s sake. The bells would enact a more heightened spirituality of the figure, as the masquerader and therefore the spirit manipulate more than just sight to demand an audience. Even without dancing around, the Ga Wree Wree dressed like this would announce its entrance in sound, encouraging everyone else to be silent. With all the elements combined, this specific Ga Wree Wree was once a powerful example of spiritual authority.
Photo by William Siegmann. February 1986.
Not all Ga Wree Wree masks look the same as this one, however, and this is largely because Dan masks live dynamic lives through which original functions evolve into new ones. Traditionally, Dan masks are created when a spirit enters into somebody through a dream. That masquerader then creates a costume and works with a carver to create a mask according to this new and personal spirit. This makes the mask, function, and personality of the dance specific to that community which can then be absorbed into tradition or abdicated for a new mask. For masks that survive through generations of maskers in which the piece is passed down between family members, the mask then takes on a new function. Usually, masks are used for war, initiations or entertainment, but such prestigious and important masks ascend to the level of gu na gle, a spirit-mask.
Photos by William Siegmann. February 1986.
The mask then functions as older and more dignified, and is called upon as a keeper of justice and order, all in addition to its original task. The mask’s accoutrements are entirely reimagined to reflect this powerful change. Usually, the mask itself remains largely unchanged, but the costume and head decorations are made to be bigger, more decorated, and much more spiritually powerful. The mask often takes on more attributes of other masks in the larger region that it then rules over to exemplify its absorption into the culture. Truly, as a result of all this dynamic influx and unknowable specificies, the complete history of function and intention of a Ga Wree Wree mask is unknowable.
However, with the endless possibilities, it’s fun to imagine.
Fischer, Eberhard. “Dan Forest Spirits: Masks in Dan Villages.” African Arts 11, no. 2 (1978):
16-94. doi:10.2307/3335443. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3335443.
Thompson, Robert Farris. African Art in Motion: Icon and Act. California: University of
California Press, 1974.