Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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10 / The Natural World

Gela Mask (The Ancient One)
Gela Mask (The Ancient One)
Artist / Origin Wee artist, Liberia/Cote d’Ivoire
Region: Africa
Date 20th century
Material Wood, raffia, cloth, teeth, feathers, hair, fiber cord, cowrie shells, mud, and pigment
Medium: Other
Dimensions H: 31 7/8 in. (81 cm.), W: 18 (45.7 cm.), D: 10 15/16 in. (27.8 cm)
Location Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA
Credit Courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company/Photo by Pamela McCluskey

expert perspective

Pamela McCluskyCurator of African and Oceanic Art, Seattle Art Museum

Gela Mask (The Ancient One)

» Wee artist, Liberia/Cote d’Ivoire

expert perspective

Pamela McClusky Pamela McClusky Curator of African and Oceanic Art, Seattle Art Museum

When I’m touring people through the galleries we look at the array of masks that come from Africa that combine human and animal identities—and that is a very fundamental difference in the sense that many westerners have that animals are somehow different. They are not meant to mix with humans in any real distinct manner. And that goes back to a Western ethos that can be dated to Aristotle who said divinity only comes in the human form. And yet in Africa the ability to look at our environment and not say we’re going to change it, but we’re going to work with what’s there. And, in fact, there is one culture that says they have a university of the forest. Imagine the forest as a moral document. And many of the masquerade impersonators come out and they are hovering right between being human and being visitors from that forest that mix animal and human features and are bringing a message about the ways that we are overstepping the bounds of what is human and animal all the time.

I think of one mask where the face has totally erupted. It’s completely covered with horns and teeth and tusks from creatures that live in the forest. And it’s from the Wee people. And they bring it out and it becomes like a magnet, they say, for all of the cobwebs that people weave between each other, the nasty things they’ve said about each other that sometimes are hovering in the air. And yet that mask can suck it all back into their body and return it to the forest, and thereby purge the human arena of the animalistic instincts that we know we all have. So there is a whole lot that’s looking at where we share.

We have a commonality with animals in some regards and we have character traits that we need to look at from another angle. And that idea that in many African cultures you are not about changing the environment, but learning from it and changing people, changing people’s behavior and modeling yourself after what are the aspects of animals that are truly admirable and where are they a mirror for something that we’re doing wrong. So being able to look from the viewpoint of a culture that has not entirely determined that something like the forest is a place that you use, but it’s a place that you learn from.” 

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