The Post-Harvest Masked Festival in Canton Bo

Masked Festivals of Canton Bo explores how and why maskers appear, from the perspective of Canton Bo villagers. Three kinds of visual forms offer specific information about the “meaning of the masker.” The first is a rare set of strikingly vigorous, colored drawings of individual masked figures in full costume. These come from the mind and hand of a local man, Oulai Amora, a rice and coffee planter from Keibli village, Canton Bo, who executed the drawings with colored pens and hung them on the walls of his tiny mud-walled house.

Because Amora was an active participant in festival rituals, his work provides, to some extent, a rare insiders’ view. The visual impact of the drawings stems from his ability to form vivid images of a spiritual being as a coherent reality. Amora’s outlines convey the confident authority by which each spirit figure steps forward into our visual world. In Bo villages, the successive appearance of maskers on the dance clearing trace the human life span, youngest to oldest. Amora’s drawings also show the specific kind of headdress and costume worn by the masked spirit performers in Canton Bo during the nineteen eighties.

The second set of revealing images consists of a series of color photographs related to and clustered around one of the drawings. They show the larger setting of the performances and capture the costumed maskers in action, revealing the range and variety of their attitudes and behavior. They demonstrate that the mask was only one part of a full costume and often almost entirely obscured. The Bo favor obscuring the mask to indicate its spiritual character, in contrast to the western public’s emphasis on the isolated mask form.

The third visual form is an array of real wooden facemasks from the Peabody Museum, collected by Dr. George W. Harley in Liberia during the 1930s. These facial forms are common in the forest zone that extends across eastern Liberia and southwest Ivory Coast. You will see similar forms in Bo masks in action during Bo festivals. This display allows us to contemplate the sculptured forms in a direct way rarely visible to festival spectators. 

Curator Monni Adams next to the installation of masks. Photo by Sarah Otto.