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Honoring Women

A feast ladle of the Dan people of West Africa
August 8, 2016
Feast Ladle

Constantine Petridis Curator of African Art

Feast Ladle late 19th–early 20th century. Dan people, Côte d’Ivoire. Wood, cord; h. 57.3 cm. Severance and Greta Millikin Trust 2013.52


One of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s most recent African art acquisitions to be admired in the permanent gallery of sub-Saharan art is a human-shaped ladle from the Dan people, a population of farmers living in the forest region of northeastern Liberia and adjacent Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa. This strikingly elegant sculpture—purchased by the museum at a Christie’s auction in Paris last year—not only adds an unusual object type to the African collection as a whole, it also expands our collection of art from the Dan and related peoples of the Liberia/Côte d’Ivoire border region, who are known predominantly for their vibrant masking traditions.

The museum’s Dan mask, in a style ascribed to the northern Dan region, is typically identified as a “fire-extinguisher” or “fire-watcher,” called sagbwe in Côte d’Ivoire and zakpei ge in Liberia. Its main role was to prevent village fires during the dry season when the dry desert wind constitutes a constant threat for a village’s safety as it can cause a family’s hearth to catch fire in a flash. It is interesting to note, however, that the Cleveland example must once have borne a different identity and played a different role, as its round eyes—the hallmark of fire-watchers—were originally slit shaped. The adjustment of physical features of masks is not an uncommon practice among the Dan and testifies to the ever-changing nature of a mask’s character, complicating every interpretation of any object once it is taken out of its original context.


Face Mask

Face Mask possibly early 20th century. Dan people, Côte d’Ivoire or Liberia. Wood, metal; h. 22.9 cm. Gift of Katherine C. White 1972.331


Ladles rendered with a stylized female lower body and slightly bent legs appear to be a creation unique to the Dan people. Some examples are carved with a handle sporting a carved human head or even an animal head, most typically of a ram or cow. The anthropomorphic examples are often characterized by the careful rendering of anatomical details, including strong, muscular calves and toes with marked nails. Also, testifying to the virtuosity of their makers, such ladles are often adorned with intricate imitations of scarifications and various other corporeal markings. Aside from the references to the female body, Dan ladles are especially noteworthy because they actually pertain to the lives of women. Indeed, while the majority of Dan figures and masks belong to the male domain, and the same can be said of most other African art traditions, Dan ladles are owned and used by women. Moreover, because they are said to be inhabited and activated by spirits, they can be understood as the equivalent for Dan women to what masks are for Dan men.

The Cleveland ladle also distinguishes itself by its collection history, which locates it in Côte d’Ivoire prior to 1934. The man who acquired it in Africa, Professor Pierre-Paul Grassé (1895–1985), was an eminent zoologist and an expert on termites, and author of more than 300 scientific publications. The 1930s were a fertile time for the study of Dan culture and art. Four pioneering scholars were active in the region, including the Austrian anthropologist Etta Donner, the American missionary and anthropologist George Harley, the German anthropologist Hans Himmelheber, and the Belgian art historian Pieter Jan Vandenhoute. While Donner was the first to conduct research in Dan country, and one of the very first professional female “fieldworkers,” Vandenhoute was the first scholar in the world ever to obtain a PhD in African art history (Ghent University, Belgium, 1945). All these early Dan scholars also acquired a large number of works during their field research, along with extensive accompanying documentation. When it comes to ladles we owe most of our understanding of the genre to the in-depth research conducted on the Liberian side of the border since the 1930s by Hans Himmelheber and his stepson Eberhard Fischer.

An emblem of her status and prestige, a large ceremonial ladle like the Cleveland example was the prized possession of a distinguished married woman who was recognized for her farming talents and her exceptional generosity. Among the Liberian Dan, such a “hospitable woman” was given the title wunkirle. There are many different vernacular names for the ladle itself, but the commonly used wa ke mia primarily refers to its association with a so-called Feast of Merit or Cow Feast. One of a wunkirle’s most demanding responsibilities was to act as one of the hostesses of such a grand celebration. Along with other women holding the same honorary title, she was expected to prepare food for a large number of guests, including foreigners who had come from far away to attend. The ladle in her possession served as the embodiment of the spirit that assisted her in the undertaking. During the Feast of Merit, the various women holding the wunkirle title danced in the company of their assistants. While singing a refrain in a strident voice, they brandished their ladles filled with rice grains, peanuts, or coins. According to the Liberian Dan, the ladle’s bowl represents the embodied spirit’s womb, which was thought to be “pregnant with rice.” The engraved designs on the back of the ladle are similar to the scarification patterns that once graced a woman’s body.


Ladle in Use

Ladle in Use Brandishing her feast ladle, a hospitable woman of the We people (closely related neighbors of the Dan) parades through the village of Goya in Côte d’Ivoire. Photo: Hans Himmelheber. From Barbara C. Johnson,Four Dan Sculptors (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986), fig. 13.


Yet a slightly different reality, which may perhaps be more relevant to the Cleveland ladle, has been recorded among the Dan of Côte d’Ivoire by Vandenhoute. His field notes of the late 1930s, as they have been summarized and published by his student, the late Elze Bruyninx, indicate that such dance or feast ladles were created to mark the conclusion of the initiation into adulthood of a woman’s firstborn son. They would have been used by the mother to feed her son in a ritual symbolizing his rebirth and subsequent reintegration into society. Still, according to Vandenhoute, the ladle’s bowl refers to a woman’s pregnancy but also alludes to the mountain from where in Dan cosmogony the founders of the community descended on earth. The designs applied to the ladle’s back, which are exceptionally elaborate on the Cleveland example, represent the vines which the ancestors used to reach the earth.

Thanks to the wealth of contemporary field-based research, we have rich firsthand information that is directly related in terms of both place and time to the Cleveland ladle and other Dan objects in collections. However, the fact that several people conducted research at the same time in different parts of the vast territory occupied by the Dan has also revealed different interpretations of similar phenomena that are as much the result of geographic variations as they are due to varying personal perspectives. Indeed, aside from pointing to cultural differences between the Liberian Dan and those living in Côte d’Ivoire, the literature also illuminates the subjective nature of our knowledge of Dan art. The same relativity most likely applies to many other African art traditions. 


Cleveland Art, September/October 2014