Fire Watchers

The Dan peoples of Côte d’Ivoire used different types of masks to translate immaterial forest spirits into the human form. This particular mask would have been the embodiment of the male-gendered spirits, Gunyege and used in secular running competitions. Races were held each week during the dry season and a runner wearing a mask such as the present lot would chase an unmasked runner. If he caught the runner, he would keep the mask. However, if he were outrun, he would relinquish his mask to the winner who would, in turn, chase another runner. The runner with the most victories at the end of the season was declared the champion. Gunyege were also known as fire-watchers, emphasized by their haunting, circular eyes, and protectors of the village from the fast-spreading fires that swept the savannah in the dry season. The present lot likely dates from the early 20th century and exhibits particularly attractive aluminum-lined sockets and the remnants of what would have been an elaborate coiffure.