Location: Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire, Africa.
Language: Dan (Mande)
Neighbouring Peoples: Guere, Guro, Mano.
Types of Art: Dan sculptors mainly produce masks which deal with virtually every element in Dan society, including education, competition, war, peace, social regulation, and of course, entertainment. They also produce stylized wooden spoons and intricate game boards used for "mancala", a common game of "count and capture".
History: Oral traditions describe the Dan society of the 19th century as lacking any central governing power. Social cohesion was fostered by a shared language and a preference for intermarriage.
Generally, each village had a headman who had earned his position of advantage in the community through hard work in the fields and through luck as a hunter. They usually surrounded themselves with young warriors for protection from invading neighbours and exchanged gifts with other chiefs in order to heighten their own prestige. Out of this custom was born the basic tradition of tin working and trading among the Dan, which was based on displaying one's success in order to build a good reputation and name.
Economy: The African tradition of tin working is still an essential part of the Dan economy today. Young people strive to make a name for themselves by lavishly spending at community feasts to demonstrate their wealth. Although farming and hunting have been largely replaced by labouring in the diamond camps or working at the rubber plantations, the establishment of a hierarchical social order is still based on the individual's ability to succeed.
Political Systems: It has been only recently, through the creation of the leopard society (go), that a unifying political organization has emerged among the Dan. The secret political society centres around the powerful spirit go, who is responsible for peacemaking. Although the power of go seems to be increasing throughout Dan society, individual villages still maintain a high degree of political independence, and the economic power of the individual is still highly valued.
Religion: The Dan world view holds that everything can be divided into two separate and clear categories. The primary dichotomy is between village and bush, in other words, things that have been controlled by man, and things that have not. Crossing over the dividing line is dangerous business, and whenever it is done, whether to clear new fields or simply crossing the forest, the bush spirits must be appeased. In order to take part in village life, the bush spirits must take corporeal form.
The Dan believe that all creatures have a spirit soul (du), which is imparted onto humans and animals from the creator god, Xra, through birth. One's du is immortal and is passed on after death to a new being. However, some du remain bodiless. They inhabit the forests as bush spirits and must establish a relationship with a person if they wish to be manifested and honoured. Often the spirit will request the chosen person to dance the spirit, utilizing a mask to illustrate the spirit's embodiment.
Credits: Christopher D. Roy, Professor of the History of Art. The University of Iowa.