Masked Festivals of Canton Bo, Southwest Ivory Coast

Masker during a festival in Canton Bo
The final masker, wearing the white-shell head-dress, bent with age and wisdom. Photo by Monni Adams.

African facemasks, sculpted from blackened wood, came to the attention of adventurous art collectors and the public in the early part of the twentieth century. These pioneers of African art were following the trail of western artists who were exploring abstraction and the activities of anthropologists and explorers of distant lands who were bringing exotic carvings to the attention of all.

Throughout the twentieth century, this fascination spread to an ever-broader public. Museums and many gift shops were careful to include African masks in their displays. Popular magazines, especially those concerned with home decoration, pictured African masks propped on furniture and coffee tables, or devoted a few pages to dramatically lit views of the powerful lines of selected African masks.

Since the nineteen fifties, especially, the importation of hundreds of thousands of copies produced by African carvers ensured that, at a wide range of social levels, collectors of African facemasks abounded. Museums acquired major collections of African sculpture while traders from Africa could make a living selling African masks on the streets of large cities and in international airports. For an amazingly broad public, the black African facemask became an icon not only for modern art, but also for the vast array of diverse African sculpture.

This online exhibition presents a revised version of the 2009 exhibition in Tozzer Library, Masked Festivals of Canton Bo curated by Monni Adams. The scope of the exhibition goes beyond the stark display of the isolated facemask to reveal the structure of the performance sequence common to post-harvest festivals in Canton Bo. Such festivals are not limited to Canton Bo, but are celebrated, with variations, by numerous agricultural communities in the dense forest regions of West Africa. The photographs and drawings displayed derive from extended fieldwork, conducted by curator Monni Adams in the nineteen eighties. In this exhibition, she sought to widen the focus beyond the facemask, by showing the complexity of the settings in which the facemasks appear, the costumes maskers wear, their diverse roles, and performance behavior.