Mask of Liberia..

Dan mask, Liberia

Liberia is the oldest republic in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s name is derived from a Latin phrase meaning “free land.” Liberia is bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). Monrovia is the capital and Liberia’s largest city.

Liberia’s population is made up of two main groups: indigenous Africans who have lived in the region for hundreds of years, and Americo-Liberians who are descended from freed slaves who came as settlers. There are 16 different indigenous African groups that make up nearly 95 percent of the Liberian population. Each group possesses a unique history, language and culture. The largest group are the Kpell, who live in central Liberia, and the Bassa, who live along the coast. Other groups include the Gio, Krahn, Kru, Mano, and Vai.

Music and dance are an integral part of village life in Liberia. The people dance and sing for the departed souls of the dead, at celebrations and weddings, on behalf of important visitors, and just for fun. Liberian dances are often noted for the energy and passion displayed by the dancers. As with most African dance forms, Liberian dances often reference not just the physical, but the spiritual as well. These dances are a way to preserve and transmit important stories and traditions.

Dance styles vary according to different tribes and region. Some of the best known forms of Liberian dance include Kru dances, Vai dances, Kpelle dances and Bassa dances.

In the indigenous groups of Liberia, masks play an important part in connecting the living with the ancestral spirits and ancient deities. It is a means by which people strive to gain knowledge and insight into the future. The dancer “becomes” the mask, thus it is traditionally important that the human identity is not revealed to the public.

Dan MaskThe Dan Mask

The Gio People live in northern Liberia, and speak a language called Mande. They are primarily farmers and hunter/gatherers. Gio men also have their own secret society which marks their initiation into manhood and guides them throughout their lives. The Dan mask is a ceremonial mask which is worn during festival time, along with the Glegben, (Stilt Mask). The dance has very intricate hands and feet movements, with which the drummer and the masked dancer communicate. At times, the drummer follows the dancer, and at times the dancer follows the drummer, making it a true dialogue in movement and sound. (The Dan Mask shown here courtesy of Museum of Ancient & Modern Art.)

The Vai Mask (Nafai or Frisky Devil)

Nafai belongs to the Gola, Vai, and Mendi Tribes from Grand Cope Mount county of Monrovia, Liberia. The Vai people make their living by farming the fertile lands of northwestern Liberia and southeastern Sierra Leone. The Nafai Mask belongs to the men. Usually this character is very frisky, goes anywhere and asks for whatever he wants. He is regarded as a playboy character.

The Yan Mask

The Yan Mask, or Gbetu, also belongs to the Gola, Vai, and the Mendi Tribes of Liberia. The Yan is for the Poro (men’s) society, and the Sande (women’s) society, or club. Within Vai culture there are both male and female secret societies which teach young boys and girls the social, survival, traditional, and personal lessons in becoming men and women. Performing the masked dance is the final blessing. The Yan mask performs during the graduation which is known as “The Breaking of the Poro Bush,” where the boys and the Yan mask exhibit their talents.

By Darlington Micah

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