La Côte d’Ivoire, where Masks are Celebrated!

If countries were ranked on whether their names can make someone dream, la “Côte D’Ivoire” (The Ivory Coast) of West Africa would undoubtedly be high on the list.  One can easily imagine the sand of this country’s coastal beaches being so white that it would bring to mind the milky color of ivory.   But of course, this evocative name refers to the main trade cargo for Portuguese and French merchant explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries that occurred on that particular stretch of the coast of West Africa: the export of ivory.  (Similarly, today, Ghana was named the Gold Coast and Togo, Benin, Nigeria, sadly the Slave Coast).  And although the Ivory Coast was named for its elephants and once had one of the largest elephant populations in West Africa, the country’s elephant numbers have declined rapidly. Poaching and the deforestation of lands to make room for the coffee and cocoa plantations, two of the country’s main exports today, cause this decline.

But if ivory is not present in the country the way it was initially, its cultural traditions have stayed alive and well.  With over 60 indigenous ethnic groups, the Ivory Coast culture’s diversity is genuinely remarkable. And the most iconic Ivoirian art is the mask, primarily used in traditional dances or performances.  As in the Beninese voodoo ceremonies ( Do the Voodoo, Voodoo without Dolls), wearers of these spectacular masks can communicate with the spirits (some argue that the spirits possess them). Rhythmic music from local instruments helps them in this quest. 

I was recently able to see some of these colorful performances, three of which I’ll describe now and others later.  The first one, the Zaouli, is a traditional mask dance of the Guro ethnic group.  Though relatively recent since it was created in the 1950s, the Zaouli is probably the most well-known cultural performance piece in West Africa and is indeed spectacular.  Though the inspiration behind the dance is said to be a beautiful girl named Djela Lou Zaouli, the dance is always performed by men and is said to require up to 7 years of extensive training. This claim is easy to believe after watching it performed. 

To see Zaouli dancers, we made our way to Baouflé in south-central Cote d’Ivoire.   A crowd of locals had already assembled when we arrived mid-afternoon at the village.  A Zaouli performance is a treat for everyone.   After a little while, a dancer appeared accompanied by his minder (to protect the dancer– or the spirits it embodies–from the people and the people from him). He was cloaked and sat quietly for a short moment.  Then the minder removed the cloth to reveal a stunning mask and indicate that the dancer was ready to perform.  Accompanied by drums, the dancer walked around looking at the crowd, like he was tapping their energy.  He then started a series of small jumps, which progressed into a crisscross pattern with his legs at a frantic pace while his upper body remained almost still.  No step in the dance is repeated twice.  The legs, covered with bright-colored striped leggings, create a mesmerizing spectacle and the layers of seed pods at the ankles add a rhythmic sound during the dance. 

Many types of Zaouli masks are used for the dance, and each represents a different legend.  We saw three of them, sequentially: the grey mask of Zohoulin, featuring a chicken eating a lizard, which represents struggles between the Guro and other ethnic groups; the red mask of Gan, representing wildlife surviving the threat of hunters; and the light orange mask of Sortanvani which is said to represent weavers, a valued skill in the Guro community.

At the end of the dance, we were granted the rare opportunity to photograph the dancer unmasked briefly, an unusual event as the dancer is thought to be inhabited by the spirits and is rarely seen (nor photographed) by non-initiated.

The next dance is from the Senufo ethnic group, primarily found in the Northern part of the Ivory Coast.  Called the Boloye dance or Panther dance, the dance is believed to have originated with children left in the forest as a phase of their initiation to adulthood. To this day, young Senufo men have to go through a rite of passage that requires them to spend time alone in the forest (women have their rite of passage they have to go through as well).  As the forest is full of danger and spirits, the children developed a game dance where they perform stunts to drive the spirits away.  These days, Boloye is done on special occasions and part of all Senufo funerals. 

When we arrived at the village near Korhogo,  northern Ivory Coast, musicians were already sitting in a line, holding a strange-looking (for me) local instrument, called a bolon.  It is a large calabash (gourd) covered with goat or cow skin.   A curved wooden neck with strings has been attached to the calabash, so the instrument is used for two different rhythms, strings, and percussion. For some time, a large number of children were dancing, following the rhythm of the bolons. 

The children were sent away as the Boloye dancers made their way in.  They were dressed in a simple costume made from a spotted brownish cloth covering their bodies entirely, except for an opening for the eyes.  Barefoot, the dancers hold sticks in their hands, and they never let go of them the entire time.  After acknowledging the crowd and the musicians, dancers, one at a time, performed a series of daring pirouettes, backflips, flips, and headstands, reminiscent of some street dancing we see at home.  They almost seem to be challenging one another to go further.  Only initiated men have the right to wear the Panther costume and perform, although one of them appeared to be relatively younger (well, significantly smaller in size) than the others.

The next dance, the Goli, is a traditional dance of the Baoulé in Central Cote d’Ivoire. The Goli dancers appeared two at a time, their bodies entirely covered by a spectacular mask/costume made of raffia with their back covered by what looked like a cowhide.  The musicians carry a calabash enclosed in a beaded mesh, making it a rather large gourd rattle.  The two dancers appear identical, but apparently subtle differences make one a male and a female (I thought I knew how to differentiate gender in humans, but the usual cues were not available in these  Goli dancers).  The two dancers alternated coming near the musicians, who sped up the rhythm until the dancers got into a frantic pace.  Strangely, they end the dance by hitting their own back with a stick (thus, the hide).  The dance is performed with various styles of masks, up to four, with different symbolism.  The first one we saw was the “kpan,” the human-faced mask, while the second was the “glen” mask, representing a mythical cross between an antelope and a crocodile. 

On to more dances in my next story.




11 Responses

  1. Love these stunning images . What a feast for the eyes in design and costume.

    The Zaouli dancer’s costume is most effective with its strips adding extra visual movement .

    The costumes are beautifully made.

    The athleticism and creative ability on display is incredible .

    When the dance is the main focus and the performers are not required to also sing one can see how so much more energy is directed in the dance .

    It is a whole different experience to not see a face but a mask , it can be unsettling and challenging if brought up in cultures where we rely so much on facial expressions . It does require us to extend ourselves which I think is always a good thing .

    How fortunate to see and experience these amazing culture in far away countries and sharing your images, thank you so much..and thanks to the people who let you take their pictures .


    1. Emilie, I am so happy you are enjoying these images as the dances were pretty spectacular. I tried hard to convey the experience as best as I could but I think photographing artistic performances is an art form in itself and I don’t think this is what I do best. Particularly that this is more than artistic for them, it is clearly spiritual. Very thoughtful of you to thank the people who let me take their pictures. I do always thank them profusely (with gifts as well). I asked some locals at the village where the Boloye dance was performed whether this was a problem for them that non-initiated people would witness these dances. I was told that they had to ask permission from the spirits of the forest first!

      1. Permission from the spirit of the forest first ..lovely .
        Respect of spirits or elders seems such an across the board value underpinning traditional Indigenous cultures . I appreciate having this awareness, it makes me think more .

    1. Thank you, Michele, I can see why you like the Boloye better, it sure requires impressive athletic abilities.

Would love to hear from you!

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