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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Natural World Art: Gela Mask (The Ancient One)

» Wee artist, Liberia/Cote d’Ivoire

Gela Mask (The Ancient One)

Gela Mask (The Ancient One)
Artist / Origin: Wee artist, Liberia/Cote d’Ivoire
Region: Africa
Date: 20th century
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
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

Among the Wee (or Wè) of Liberia and the Ivory Coast, individuals sponsor festivals that take place annually during the dry season, which lasts from November to February.

These festivals feature dancing and performances focused on the figure of the gela. The term gela refers to the animated being comprised of face mask, costume, and the wearer beneath. Gelamasks are given a variety of identities that, rather than describing their physical appearance, are linked to the powers associated with the mask persona. The identity of a single mask might change over time. This gela mask is known as “The Ancient One,” suggesting that it was passed down over several generations.

As is true with many African mask forms, gela masks consist of distorted features that blend animal and human elements. In the case of “The Ancient One,” features are taken to an extreme. The mask seems to erupt in horns, tusks, and teeth. A straggly beard frames the jaw and tufts of hair sprout from each side of the beastly face. Gela can use their power and strength for both destructive and beneficial ends. Older gela, for instance, are thought to be able to cause thunder and foul weather. Any gela, on the other hand, can be called upon to reconcile problems within a community. The feral aspect of the gela acts as a counterexample to humans, who are, by contrast, encouraged to embrace order and civilization. It is believed the gela can gather up the ill will and negative feelings plaguing a community and deposit them back into the forest, where the untamed forces of nature prevail.

The forest plays a central role in the lives of the Wee, whose villages are surrounded by the bush. The Wee are known as healers for their skilled used of forest plants with medicinal value. These same plants provide leaves that are pounded, mixed with water, and applied to the gela mask in a ritual of activation. The mask is, thus, invested with the spiritual power and vital energy of the forest.

Expert Perspective
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.”

Additional Resources

Adams, Monni. “Double Perspectives: Village Masking in Canton Boo, Ivory Coast.” Art Journal 47.2 (Summer 1988): 95–102.

Harding, Frances. The Performance Arts of Africa: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2002.

Roberts, Allen F., Jerry L. Thompson, and James Fernandez. Animals in African Art: From the Familiar to the Marvelous. Munich: Prestel, 1995.

Roy, Christopher. Art and Life in Africa. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 2002. Seattle Art Museum Web site.

Visona, Monica, et al. A History of Art in Africa. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

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