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Object Name: Naw mask
Place of Origin: Liberia
Cultural Group: Bassa people
Materials Used: Wood and iron
Dimensions: H: 30.5 cm, W: 17.5 cm, D: 13.5 cm (H: 12.0 in, W: 6.8 in, D: 5.3 in)
Credit line and Accession Number: Fowler Museum at UCLA. The Jerome L. Joss Collection. X87.1709
Both men’s and women’s societies of the Bassa use masks. The men’s society, Naw, performs a mask known by the same name. The term naw is impossible to translate and is usually glossed in Liberian English as “devil,” a general term used for men’s societies and for all masked performers. The mask is also frequently called a Gela, which means “big spirit.” The naw or gela mask may be present at closed meetings restricted to initiated members of the men’s societies as well as at open festive occasions where anyone may see it. Its performance consists of an exceptionally smooth, gliding dance to the music of slit drums; dancers move rapidly (ever over rough terrain), as if floating on a cushion of air. Occasionally the performance has been referred to as “the Bassa Hovercraft.” The facial part of the mask is normally a little smaller than a human face and is attached obliquely to a rattan basketry, cap-like structure. Thus, the wearer does not see out through the eyes, even when they are carved through, but rather sees through a slit in the cloth that is suspended beneath the mask and the headdress. The features of the mask, like its movements, are refined, graceful, and generally regarded as feminine. Consequently, although the mask is worn by men and is conceived of as the spirit force of a genderless order, it is simultaneously thought of as having feminine attributes. The eyes, which are narrow, half-closed, and close set, as well as the elaborate coiffure, with its central plait or crest and its rows of similar, smaller, odd-numbered, symmetrically arranged forms, match Bassa’s canons of feminine beauty. The vertical pattern on the forehead, noise and chin represents a traditional tattoo.
Source: Ross, Doran H. ed. (1994): “Visions of Africa”, Los Angeles, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.