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The Ivory Coast & West African masks

Introduction

The Republic of the Ivory Coast, on the south coast of the western bulge of Africa, is bordered to the north by Mali and Burkina Faso, to the east by Ghana, to the south the Gulf of Guinea of the Atlantic Ocean and to the west by Liberia and Guinea.

Except for the prolongation of the Guinea Highlands in the northwest (from Man to Odienne), with peaks rising to 4000 and 5,000ft, the most part the Ivory Coast is vast plateau, tilted gently towards the Atlantic. It is drained by four major rivers running roughly parallel from north to south, the Cavally (on the Liberian frontier), Sassandra, Bandama and Comoe. They are not of much value for transportation as they are sluggish in the dry season, broken by numerous falls and rapids and subject to torrential flooding in the rains.

The Arts

No one produces a wider variety of masks than the people of the Ivory Coast. Masks are used to represent the souls of deceased people, lesser dieties, or even caricatures of animals. The ownership of masks is restricted to certain powerful individuals or to families. Only specifically designated, specially trained individuals are permitted to wear the masks.

It is dangerous for others to wear ceremonial masks because each mask has a soul, or life force, and when a person's face comes in contact with the inside of the mask that person is transformed into the entity the mask represents.

The Baoule, the Dan (or Yacouba) and the Senoufo - all known for their wooden carvings.


The People

The population of the Ivory Coast is approx 20,617,068, currently the 57th most populated country in the world. The people of the Ivory Coast have an average age of just over 19 years old.

There are more than 60 ethnic groups, the key ones being the Baoule in the center, the Agri in the east, the Senufo in the north, the Dioula in the northwest and west, the Bete in the center-west and the Dan-Yacouba in the west. The Baoule account for 23% of the population. The succession of Konan Bedie, another Baoule, has annoyed many groups, the Bete in particular.

Migrants from other west African countries account for up to 40% of the population.


Baule (Baoule)


The Baule belong to the Akan peoples who inhabit Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire. Three hundred years ago the Baule people migrated westward from Ghana when the Asante rose to power. The tale of how they broke away from the Asante has been preserved in their oral traditions. During the Asante rise to power the Baule queen, Aura Poku, was in direct competition with the current Asante king. When the Asante prevailed, the queen led her people away to the land they now occupy. The male descendant of Aura Poku still lives in the palace she established and is honored by the Baule as their nominal king.

The Baule grow yams and some maize as primary crops. They are also exporters of cocoa and kola nuts, which are grown on local plantations using large numbers of exploited migrant laborers, most from Burkina Faso. Many locally grown crops were introduced from the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade. These include maize, manioc, peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, squash, and sweet potatoes. They also raise farm animals including sheep, goats, chickens, and dogs. Markets which are primarily run by women take place every four days and are the center of the local economy. Local produce and craft items are sold alongside imported goods from all over the world.

African Face Mask
Female African Mask

The Baule have a highly centralized government with a king or chief at the top who inherits his position along matrilineal lines. There are various subchiefs in charge of his local populations, and all the chiefs rely on political advisors who help in the decision making process. The Goli association is the primary mask association, which provides social order among the Baule.

Religion includes both ancestor worship and a heirarchy of nature gods. Nature spirits and spirit spouses are often represented in sculpture. Their creator god is Alouroua, who is never physically represented.

Senufo

The Senufo are a group of people living in northern Cote d'Ivoire and Mali. They are known as excellent farmers and are made up of a number of different groups who moved south to Mali and Cote d'Ivoire in the 15 and 16th centuries.

The Senufo follow a strict caste-like system, in which the farmer is at the top and the musicians are on the bottom rung of the society. Farming is a huge part of the Senefou culture even for those who do not belong to the farmer caste. A very communal society people will often take turns working on each others lands and trading off and on. There is almost always a group in each village which is made up of men ages 15-35 who work in fields and with what they are given provide a huge festival during the dry season for the village. Local games to see how fast someone can hoe a field are also performed to make the work more enjoyable. One of the great honors for a Senefou male is to become the sambali, or champion cultivator. The sambali is respected throughout the region and in his old age is given predominantly leadership roles. Another society for Senefou males is the poro. The poro is usually located in the forest and serves as a school for young men until they reach adulthood. Much sculptured work is made in the poro this is where much of the wood carvings, brass sculptures, and masks are made. Sometimes these are sold to local artisans. The greatest achievement for a Senefou woman is the ability to cook well. If a girl or woman cannot cook well it is a great shame to the family, especially the mother. The womans society, known as the sandogo is mainly responsible for divination.

A very animistic society the Senefou believe that everything is a result of the ancestor spirits. If a ritual is not performed correctly then the spirit will cause draught, infertility, or prolonged illness.


Bete

The Bete language of Nigeria is a nearly extinct language spoken by a small minority of the 3,000 inhabitants of Bete Town; its speakers have mostly shifted to Jukun Takum

To render the hostile forces of the forest material, they sculpted a type of mask that would provoke terror: the gre, with its grimacing face, distorted features, facial protuberances, horned heads, bulging forehead, tubular eyes, and wild animals' teeth. In earlier days, this mask presided over the ceremony held when peace was restored after armed conflicts and it participated in sessions of customary justice. Of We origin, the Bete mask is more elongated and has no fangs, horns, or bullen nails.

Settled on the left shore of the Sassandra River, the 370,000 Bete of the Ivory Coast are divided into ninety-three groups. Some authors situate one Bete group in Liberia. Traditionally, Liberia was given as their place of origin, but that opinion is now being contested.

They are mainly into agriculture (subsistence farming) they only grow what is needed by the tribe. They live under ancestor authority. They also have links to a small market economy and cultivate cocoa and coffee to generate income.

Lacking in centralized power, the Bete were grouped together in relatively major villages, containing several lineages, probably for security reasons. Each lineage had a totemic animal whose meat was taboo. The most senior member of the lineage exercised a moral and judicial power, notably in terms of awarding land. The Bete, who ascribed more importance to the hunt than to agriculture, grew only what was needed for a subsistence economy.

They maintain a harmonious relationship between nature and the ancestors. The vast majorities follow their traditional African religion and believe in the God Lago however; they do not worship this God. They believe in the spirit world to guide and protect them through daily life. These spirits they believe are found in nature, namely rivers, rocks, forests etc. Sacrifices of worldly possessions are made to the spirits to appease them especially during troubling times.


Dan-Yacouba


The Dan are an extremely musical people. They don't do anything without music. Rice, Death, Marriage, Birth, Weather are all celebrated with music

Dan sculptors mainly produce masks which deal with virtually every element in Dan society, including education, competition, war, peace, social regulation, and of course, entertainment. They also produce stylized wooden spoons and intricate game boards used for mancala, a common game of "count and capture".

Oral traditions describe the Dan society of the 19th century as lacking any central governing power. Social cohesion was fostered by a shared language and a preference for intermarriage. Generally, each village had a headman who had earned his position of advantage in the community through hard work in the fields and through luck as a hunter. They usually surrounded themselves with young warriors for protection from invading neighbors and exchanged gifts with other chiefs in order to heighten their own prestige. Out of this custom was born the basic tradition of tin among the Dan, which was based on displaying one's success in order to build a good reputation and name.

The tradition of tin is still an essential part of the Dan economy today. Young people strive to make a name for themselves by lavishly spending at community feasts to demonstrate their wealth. Although farming and hunting have been largely replaced by laboring in the diamond camps or working at the rubber plantations, the establishment of a hierarchical social order is still based on the individual's ability to succeed.

It has been only recently, through the creation of the leopard society (go), that a unifying political organization has emerged among the Dan. The secret political society centers around the powerful spirit go, who is responsible for peacemaking. Although the power of go seems to be increasing throughout Dan society, individual villages still maintain a high degree of political independence, and the economic power of the individual is still highly valued.

The Dan world view holds that everything can be divided into two separate and clear categories. The primary dichotomy is between village and bush, in other words, things that have been controlled by man and things that have not. Crossing over the dividing line is dangerous business, and whenever it is done, whether to clear new fields or simply crossing the forest, the bush spirits must be appeased. In order to take part in village life, the bush spirits must take corporeal form. The Dan believe that all creatures have a spirit soul (du), which is imparted onto humans and animals from the creator god, Xra, through birth. One's du is immortal and is passed on after death to a new being. However, some du remain bodiless. They inhabit the forests as bush spirits and must establish a relationship with a person if they wish to be manifested and honored. Often the spirit will request the chosen person to dance the spirit, utilizing a mask to illustrate the spirit's embodiment.


Religion

The Ivory Coast practices many different beliefs. 60% of the population practices their traditional beliefs that were developed in their villages many years ago. Out of the Ivory Coast population, 6,670,912 million, about 20% practice the Muslim religion. These would mean covering your whole body in cloth if you were women. Only about 10% of the people practice Christianity and Roman Catholicism. Even though only a small percentage of the population practices Christianity, the largest Christian church in all of Africa is located in Yamoussoukro. This church is called Our Lady of Peace, and people from far away sometimes go there to worship their Lord. Many beliefs are practiced in this country.



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