The Fox, Zakpai & Gagon

This weekend was ultra-solid as empty-nested and broken bracketed Easter weekends go. Sadly though it did begin on a low note since I was throughly priced out of a couple decent African tribal art offerings. Like any good fox however I found myself surprisingly amenable to spurning the ‘grapes’ and moving right along to more affordable fare.


Zakpai Mask – Dan Tribe

Zakpai‘ is the fire prevention mask. Its function is to insure
that women have put out their cooking fires every day during
the dry season, before the afternoon winds begin to blow.
Zakpai is aggressive, sometimes throws things, and is
meant to inspire fear. Tall green leaves cover the head. In
addition, the masker wears pants with a ruff of raffia around
the waist and neck. It carries a branch as a weapon (Fischer
1978, 21). [1]

In keeping with the Dan trend my favorite dealer parted ways with this small treasure.


Dan Tribe – Gagon

Masks with a large beak-like form and beard of monkey fur, often with a moveable lower jaw, are Gagon masks. Originally an educational mask instructing people on the importance of the hornbill bird to their culture, they are now used mostly for entertainment.[2]

These pieces were part of an African Art collection from the estate of Alfred M. Prince, both the scholar, philanthropist, and the avid collector.

The following photographs were recommended for addition (thanks Ed), and are sourced (as indicated) from the topic essay titled “MASQUERADES AMONG THE DAN PEOPLE” and the PinInterest site.




Africa | People wear a “Dan” mask at the agricultural Festival of Ignames of the Yacouba tribe in Cote d’Ivoire. | Image and caption © Charles & Josette Lenars



Two kagle masks and deangle, Dan peoples, Liberia. February 1986. Photo by William Siegmann.












One Response to The Fox, Zakpai & Gagon

  1. Ed says:

    Perhaps, like you (and others), I initially began my “quest” collecting African historical-contemporary cultural “arts” enamored with various ideas and masquerades involving the Dan people, sub-groups and neighbors. The ‘Zakpai’ was one of many elusive examples;

    1). Essentially, the “Zakpai” belongs to the (complex) déanglé masking varieties. The highly popular and famous mask carvers Sra and Uopié’s works are selling for well into the six figures today (well over half a million dollars+).
    2). Invariably, these masks have transitioned over time, so the “traditional” understanding is not necessarily consistent with today’s purpose. It is wrong for Westerners to hold African cultures in such time-limited and unevolved monograms – which leave African societies in a vacuum – even the “fire brigade” reality of the ‘Zakpai’ mask is not conclusive.
    3). It becomes is crucial [for me] to validate the credibility of ANY mask AND/OR description ‘in situ’ (by photos), not as a mere fragment mounted on a display stand in a museum, gallery, website or auction house, but what I deem “a credible action photo.” (see photo attachments).

    Mask and masquerade data needs to be balanced on research and field (era) data; of which photography supports and backs up any claims; yet that is not the case in the majority of instances. The result has become “cultural sensationalism” paralleling today’s media – with biased and a poorly informed audience – lacking objectivity.

    Concerning the ‘Gagon’ masks:
    Indeed, they were used to convey oral history, and stories surrounding culture and folklore, as well as societal (moral) codes! This is part of the colonial narratives by which imperialism thwarted and severely damaged social structures — creating a “sensationalized time vacuum” collaborated today with regard to many Africanisms. There was a time when I sought to find a couple very good examples… I am ‘dormant’ and lackluster in search habits, but still committed if the right ones come along.

    The last time I was in Africa was four years ago, but for the first time, became astutely aware of African Hornbills. There are various varieties of Hornbills. They are huge and haunting creatures that have an uncanny ability to mimic other sounds – including humans – among the most INTELLIGENT and ultimate (obscure) hunters in Africa as Westerners understand and conceptualize… Intriguing creatures. Consider the vast ethnic societies which have invented and revere the hornbill in masquerades or figurative carvings… Is it really any wonder?

    … Great subjects for presentation and interest for discussion topics and learning!

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