The Gouro Zaouli Masks from Côte d’Ivoire

the japanese art of Kentsugi
Cote d'Ivoire globe
Côte d'Ivoire, West Africa (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)


«The mask is one of the most important human artifacts in all of the anthropology», said Graham M. Jones, a professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MA, USA).

Although masks are not anthropological universals and are not common to all known human cultures worldwide, they are nevertheless very widespread objects. According to Paul S. Wingert, professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University (NY, USA), as cultural objects, masks «have been used throughout the world in all periods since the Stone Age and have been as varied in appearance as in their use and symbolism».

Masks can be made by using a wide variety of materials, such as different kinds of wood and metal, shells, fibers and raffia, ivory, bone, earth and clay, horn, stone, feathers, plaster, leather, furs, cardboard, papier mâché, cloth, corn husks, wax, and so on.

They can be carved, unrefined, painted, decorated, or lacquered.

They can display a wide variety of shapes, from simplest eye covers to complex helmet masks, designed with articulated and movable parts, animal or human hairs, a raffia beard, neck collars, earrings, etc.

Chokwe face mask Mwana Pwo
Chokwe face mask representing a beautiful young woman (pwo or mwana pwo), adorned with tattoos, earrings, and an elaborate coiffure.
Medium: wood (probably Alstonia congensis), plant fiber, pigment (from a mixture of red clay and oil), copper alloy, kaolin (on the eyes).
Dating: early 20th century.
Provenance: Democratic Republic of the Congo or Angola.
Dimensions: height 39.1 x width 21.3 x depth 23.5 cm (15 3/8 x 8 3/8 x 9 1/4 in.).
© Smithsonian, photo courtesy by The National Museum of African Art.

Masks can have human features with gender-specific traits (anthropomorphic masks) or show animal features (theriomorphic masks). They can represent a hybrid creature or even a mythological, legendary being. They can be also a representation of an immanent spirit, an ancestor, a supernatural entity, a force of the universe, or a transcendent power. Some are quite realistic, while others show symbolized or even highly abstract characteristics.

Their appearance can be frightening, disturbing, reassuring, funny, or be the representation of ideal beauty or other qualities, such as nobility or courage.

Their functions show wide heterogeneity as well: they can be worn during socially significant occasions, religious ceremonies, sacred rites, shamanic practices, magic rituals, or funeral customs. They can be used for protection, disguise, ornamentation, fun, and pure entertainment, or as identity markers. They can also play an essential role in a music, theater, or dance performance.

The war masks were worn during the fighting as face protection devices, and in some cultures, they also gave the warrior a terrifying or furious appearance to frighten the opponent.

Myōchin Muneakira MASK
Armor mask by Kyoto blacksmith Myōchin Muneakira, Japan, Edo period, 1745. The MET, New York, USA.
Medium: iron, lacquer, textile (silk)
Dimensions: height 24 cm - 9 7/16 in.; width 18.1 cm - 7 1/8 in.; depth 22.9 cm - 9 in. Weight: 557 grams.
The samurai's helmet was often completed by a war mask. This one represents Jikokuten, guardian of the East, one of the Four Kings of Heaven.

In short, when we talk about masks, any generalization is almost baseless.

In Western cultures, the mask is often conceived as a tool to hide, conceal, dissemble, or cover the authentic face; in other words, the term mask often has a negative connotation. The English verb 'to mask', the French 'masquer', the Italian 'mascherare', the Spanish 'enmascarar', the Portuguese 'mascarar', and the German 'maskieren' share the same root and the same meaning: put on a mask to disguise oneself.

Roman mosaic with theatrical masks
Ancient Roman mosaic depicting scenic masks. Dating: II century A.D. Rome, Hall of Doves, Palazzo Nuovo, Musei Capitolini.
In Roman theater, the actor was called actor or hystrio, from which the English term histrionic is derived (it means 'melodramatic' or 'overly theatrical'). Actors performed wearing a mask usually made of plastered linen cloth, leather, wood, or painted cork, and sometimes a wig. The mask did not have a normal mouth but a very wide opening that allowed the actor's voice to be amplified and was therefore called persōna, from the verb personare, 'to resonate'.

Carl G. Jung borrowed the Latin term persōna—a word probably derived from the Etruscan phersu and indicating the mask worn by actors during stage performances—to denote what each individual tends to display as a public face or social image, more or less meeting the specific requirements of their social context adhering to a subgroup of social rules, conventions, and expectations, and playing an acceptable social role.

If this mask, the persōna, is both an interface with the world and a protection from the latter, what hides behind it? What does the mask mask out?

Simple Mask

Well, the answer of Carl Jung is a complex, fascinating one, and I invite all of you to delve into his thought. Here, I simply quote what he wrote in his Two Essays on Analytical Psychology: «The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.»

Other cultures have given different answers to the same question 'What hides behind a mask?'. In the first part of The Tsuba, The Katana and the Samurai Soul, we encountered one of the most relevant conceptual pairs of the Japanese culture, omote and ura. Both in contemporary and ancient Japan, omote refers to the rules and conventions that guide the social behavior and the specific language and gestures to be adopted in public or in a given social microcosm (workplace, school, etc.), while ura refers to the informal behavior in a private context (family, close friends, etc.). Everyone has an omote side, their social appearance and formal behavior, their mask, and an ura side, their informal private nature, revealed in a more relaxed style of living. The general meaning of omote is "obvious" and "widely visible", and therefore "compliant with social norms"; ura is "what is kept hidden in public and can be therefore quite shadowy or unclear".

If omote is the mask, is ura the masked face, i.e. the true face of any individual?

Japanese culture is too sophisticated to give a positive answer to this question. In the first part of The Tsuba, The Katana and the Samurai Soul, we delved into the complex dynamic relationship between omote and ura in the life and fight of the samurai, and we saw how ura may come to light and become the omote of a different ura. For the Japanese ancient masters and the traditional culture, there is always an ura hidden beneath a given omote. If omote is the social mask of an individual, then ura is their private face, a face, however ready to become a mask itself, namely the mask covering a new ura.

In the first part of The Tsuba, The Katana and the Samurai Soul, the dynamic relationship between omote and ura and their dialectic opened to us the secrets of the samurai training, rooted in the Zen Buddhism practice, veined with Shinto elements and Confucianism, and showed the relation between them as something more complex and metamorphic than a simple polarity between the front and the backside, the mask and the masked.

«Whatever is profound loves masks» wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, meaning by 'mask' something similar to the surface covering the deep ocean waters. Oscar Wilde said that «the truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks».

Is masking an inescapable human need?

Does knowing thyself mean perfectly knowing thy masks and the moments when you need to choose the most appropriate one and wear it?

Any discourse on masks is thus a reflection on our social existence, our dasein, our being-in-the-world.

This means that we have to treat masks with a lot of respect and care because they are objects that 'speak' so much, never inappropriately.

Double Mask

Many cultures throughout history have conceived and used masks as the most powerful tools to overcome the principle of individuation, the principle by which any living being possesses a singular, concrete existence, determined in time and space. We can express the principle of individuation in this way: I can exist as an actual human being if and only if I can be individuated as existing in a concrete place and in a given time. Wearing a mask allows us to escape this 'prison' (the Platonic σῶμα σῆμα, soma sema), suspend our everyday identity, be something else or someone else in a different space-time or even be projected beyond space-time. Graham M. Jones expresses this 'freedom' in a slightly different way, by saying that the mask is «a tool of transformation that allows its wearers to transcend themselves.». It is no accident that masks have been the most important objects in the traditional practices and rituals of shamans, helping them to mediate between the worlds of matter and spirit or to travel from the world here and now to the beyond, in whatever way it is conceived, and back.

Shaman Mask
Shaman's Mask in carved and painted wood, ca. 1840-1880. Tlingit Culture, Baranof Island, Alexander Archipelago, Alaska, USA. Dimensions: 28.5 x 18.5 x 6.0 cm. © Smithsonian, photo courtesy by The National Museum of the American Indian.
Shaman Alaska
Portrait of King Island Chief Aulaġana (John Olarana) with the Good Shaman mask, Northern Alaska, USA, ca. 1939 or maybe after. Photo by Steve McCutcheon, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. Downloaded from Alaska's Digital Archives.

Masks are, therefore, among the most fascinating and relevant cultural objects as they tell stories about our being-in-the-world. They are probably among the most mysterious and ancient ones as well, as they have been handmade and used since the dawn of our prehistory.

The earliest preserved ones that we currently know of are 9,000-year-old stone artifacts coming from the Judean Hills and Desert, in Israel. They are not the most ancient pieces, but, more simply, the oldest masks that archaeologists have found so far. For many scholars, the birth date of the first masks is forever lost in the mists of time. Stephen E. Nash, an archaeologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (US), wrote: «Older masks were almost certainly made of perishable materials, such as leather, feathers, pigments, or plant remains—all materials that don’t preserve well in the archaeological record.» (in The Masked Man, SAPIENS).

The relative scarcity of masks within the archaeological record is due essentially to the ancient preference for organic materials in mask-making practices and their poor rates of survival. This means that our knowledge of prehistoric objects and ways of life is filtered and mediated by scientific reconstructions and museum exhibits. However, researchers may find and museums may show only artifacts made of materials able to withstand for millennia.

We have already encountered a similar situation when discussing the products of the art of basketry. In THE RWANDAN ART OF BASKETRY 1, we saw that antique fiber baskets are museum ghosts for reasons of force majeure; the same can be said of all masks made from natural, plant-based, and perishable colors and materials. What fiber and wooden masks looked like and what importance they had in prehistoric cultures we will never know for sure. The Neolithic Israeli masks have survived only because they are made of stone.

Hirbat Duma Mask
Carved stone mask found in the Hirbat Duma site, in Israel, from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (approx. 9,000 years ago). Dimensions: 22.5 x 15.6 x 6.6 cm. Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Avraham Hay.
This rare mask was found with other similar pieces in the Judean Desert. Israeli scholars assume that they represented the spirits of the dead and were used in religious-social ceremonies, such as ancestor cults, and in magical rites related to healing and divination.

Masks, like baskets, are prehistoric objects still in use today. Some cultures have preserved the ritual or ceremonial use of their traditional masks, while others have turned them into art objects or tourist handicrafts.

Although many people think of Africa as the homeland of the masks, their use–as we have just seen–was and still is shared by all continents except for Antarctica. It is true, nonetheless, that when we consider the creation, production, and use of masks, Africa stands out as a particularly rich continent. And among the many African masks, the Gouro Zaouli from Côte d'Ivoire hold a special place in my heart because they are among the few ones sharing a rare feature: they tell multiple stories at the same time. In particular, these masks tell a story even when they are not worn or used, and seem silent and motionless wooden pieces.

Davorio by Musica Macondo Records is a 2023 collaborative experiment between Italian musician Samuele Strufaldi and Ivorian artist Boris Pierrou, operating as a funding source for a library and a community space in the village of Gohouo-Zagna, in Western Ivory Coast.
Tiken Jah Fakoly, We Love Africa from his tenth album, Le monde est chaud, released in 2019.
Tiken Jah Fakoly, born in 1968 in Odienné, in the northwestern part of Ivory Coast, is one of the most famous and culturally active Ivorian singer and songwriter. «For his tenth album, Tiken Jah Fakoly went back to his roots by recording at home, in the Radio Libre studios he built in Abidjan. The result is an undeniably powerful work in which he delivers the substance of his thoughts on the critical situations taking place right in front of us: the climate emergency, the dramas caused by immigration, modern slavery, and the exploitation of Africa are the main themes of this record. In the midst of all its strong themes, the track We Love Africa serves as a lighter anthem on the pride of being African and the union of the continent to defend its wealth.» (from PAM - Pan African Music, 14 January 2020). Please, note the African masks on the wall.



Did you inherit from your aunt a tribal mask, a stool, a vase, a rug, an ethnic item you don’t know what it is?

Did you find in a trunk an ethnic mysterious item you don’t even know how to describe?

Would you like to know if it’s worth something or is a worthless souvenir?

Would you like to know what it is exactly and if / how / where you might sell it?