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10 / The Natural World

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

expert perspective

Pamela McCluskyCurator of African and Oceanic Art, Seattle Art Museum

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. http://www.seattleartmuseum.org.

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

Gela Mask (The Ancient One)

» Wee artist, Liberia/Cote d’Ivoire

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. Gela masks 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.

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