Of all African masks, those by the Dan people are the most distinguishable and highly sought after, with their minimal but expressively carved features, smooth modulations of facial planes and sleek polished black or dark brown surfaces. Collectors of African art adore the stark corpse-like faces of the Dan masks, which are normally crafted out of hard wood, cloth and cowry shell accents.
The Dan people have inhabited the regions of the Ivory Coast and Liberia since the eighth century B.C. Because they lacked a cohesive central government, identity as a Dan was fostered by a shared language and intermarriage within that language group. Much of their history has been entrenched in warfare and battles with neighboring tribes as well as with each other at times. This lead to the Dan warriors developing a somewhat ferocious reputation.
The Dan people classify surroundings into two realms – the village with all their inhabitants (human realm), and the forest (spirit realm) where the spirits reign, and wild animals roam freely. The forest is regarded as sacred, and crossing the boundary between the human realm and the spirit realm may only be done so by saying a prayer and wearing materials from both worlds. This creates a link between the two realms. Dan masks are guarded by the “go” master, the head of the secret society of the leopard who is responsible for the initiation rites of young men into adulthood.
Dan masks as well as most African masks are an integral part of social life, ceremonies and rituals. They are unique and were traditionally only carved by initiated members of the male Poro society. There are many different types of Dan masks, but most of them can be grouped into two main categories: the feminine mask, and the masculine mask. The feminine masks are typically characterized by an oval, pointed face, and feature slender slanted eyes, a long forehead, a slender nose, a half-opened mouth and a smooth patina finish. The shiny patina of the wood is typically created using vegetable extracts which gives the look of a lacquer finish. They are known for their calm, abstract beauty, and during ceremonies, the performer dances gracefully and harmlessly. The female Dan mask is an idealized form of beauty and grace.
Masks are made and worn exclusively by male dancers. They portray much more of a realistic form such as larger lips. Traditionally the masculine masks main function was to prepare men spiritually for war. The Dan people believe that the performing dancer is transformed into a spirit. The masked dancer will speak in the language of the spirits which is usually unintelligible. A wise man that accompanies the dancer during the ritual will then translate the messages for the people.
There are a variety of Dan face masks, each of which has a different function. They may be the intermediaries who act 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 or 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 or tourists.