Dan or Gio Figure

This Dan or Gio figure was possibly carved as a shrine figure or to commemorate a deceased ancestor or family member.

Tribe: Dan or Gio

Origin: Liberia, Ivory Coast

Approx Age: 19th Century

Materials: Wood, remains of pigment

Dimensions cm: 37 tall x 10 wide

Ref. Number: 0685



A very old Dan or Gio figure, the Dan tribe are spread out over Ivory Coast and Liberia. This 19th century Dan figure has age erosion around the body in places and originally would once have had a black coating of pigment, beeswax, resin or some other material, which some is still visible in places. The base of the feet really show how old this piece is as they have con caved.


This was most probably commissioned by or bought by an individual for personal use e.g. as a shrine figure or to commemorate a deceased ancestor or family member. It may have been used for luck, divination, etc. It reminds me of the Dan (female) Ke Die figures. There are a fair few around, but the quality of the carving depended on the price paid…i.e. only the wealthier farmers could afford what we would consider fine carvings.

Dan people have achieved notoriety for their entertainment festivals, which were village ceremonies, but are today performed largely for important visitors. During these festivals, masked performers dance on stilts. The go master, the head of the like-named society possesses the masks and guards them in a sacred hut. All Dan masks are sacred; they do not represent spirits of the wilderness, they are these spirits. Dan masks are characterized by a concave face, a protruding mouth, high-domed forehead and are often covered in a rich brown patina.

There are a variety of Dan face masks, each of which has a different function. They may be the intermediaries, who acts between the village and the forest initiation camp, may act against bush fires during the dry season, used in pre-war ceremonies, for peace-making ceremonies, for entertainment. Over time, many among them have lost their original function and have been recycled into contexts related to entertainment, emerging only for festivals or events organized for visitors. Nonetheless, the great masks live on, their even more rare appearances being reserved for times of tension, when it is important they may exercise their role of social control and their faculty to reduce conflict or settle legal wrangles.

The Dan also carried small masks (less than 8”), which are sometimes called ‘passport’ masks. They were sewn onto a piece of cloth and kept in a leather pouch and possibly worn in the small of the back. They are miniature copies of a family mask and sometimes received libations. These masks also act as witnesses during initiation ceremonies and protect the owner when he is away from home. Dan masks are the real treasures of African art tradition, ranging in their expressive powers from gentle tenderness to fierce aggression.

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