Gunyaga mask, Dan people, Liberia
The Dan use masks during funerals, initiations and various celebrations, all of which involve dance and occasionally pantomime. Stylistic details indicate the function of the mask and its particular role in an event. This handsome mask is distinguished by its round eyes, as opposed to the fine slits of the Deangle mask. The dark wood contrasts with the metal eyes, the nose turns upwards at the tip, and the lips are very full and slightly open. The hair and beard of raffia fibre adds height and dimension, and also designates this mask as masculine. Many Dan families own a mask called a gunyega (goon-YAY-ga) that is especially for racing.
The gunyega mask is worn by one of the runners, along with a cape and short skirt made of raffia. The runner carries special charms that will help him to receive assistance from the spirits. Only one of the racers in the contest is allowed to wear this costume. When the race is ready to begin, he chooses his opponent from the crowd of spectators, usually giving him a little bit of a head start. Both racers run as fast as they can on a zig-zag obstacle course, being careful not to trip on the pile of rocks that mark the turns. In order for the masked racer to win, he needs to touch the head and back of his opponent. Running while wearing the gunyega mask on his face can be very difficult, so he needs all of the spirit help he can get! If the masked racer wins, he returns wearing the gunyega mask again the following week. Of not, his opponent will show up in his own family’s gunyega mask for a race against someone else.
Spirits are thought to be much more loyal to certain masks than they are to the people who wear them. For this reason, masks are usually very well cared for and are sometimes kept in the family for many generations.
Gunyega Mask, Dan, Liberia, 20th century
Gift of Dr. Jack Kimbrough