Ninea Gla (Female Singing Mask)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:

The name of the Wè (Wee) people means ‘the charitable ones’. They are also known as the Guéré, the Wobé, or the Kran.

A fundamental tenet of Wè culture is its religious hierarchy. At the top, there is one eternal God, below which are forest spirits known as kula-kwi. These immortal beings are the only ones who can be addressed by the living and are capable of transforming into protectors or tormentors.

The Wè also has clearly defined social structures. These include village alliances that come together in times of conflict, known as bloa-dru. There is also the village itself which brings together different lineages and families. Wè lineages are ranked by seniority, determined by mythical ancestors.

Finally, there is the family, which is central to Wè socialisation. Each family is helped by a patriarch who oversees affairs, settles conflicts and conducts rituals.

However, while the patriarchs are powerful, they are not the only authority in Wè communities. Three key institutions are tasked with regulating society and protecting the village against evil spells. These are the brotherhoods known as the Kwi, along with the panther-men and the Zriklahi or Glake. The latter are famed for their masks which allow them to communicate with God on behalf of others.

Much of the Wè's life is symbolised or governed through masks. But unlike some other indigenous cultures, Wè masks are rarely related to ancestor worship. Instead, they are viewed as supernatural beings that must be appeased through sacrifice and dance rituals.

Famed art anthropologist, dealer, and collector Hans Himmelheber studied the Wè masks extensively throughout the 1960s. He described two common forms, the male and the female, with the latter at the bottom of the hierarchy. The young maiden mask — ninea gla — portrays a young woman who has undergone some form of excision. Female masks are said to reflect Wè ideals of beauty and elegance. Ninea gla masks are employed for amusement by vocalists who elevate them to the top of their heads to ensure that their voices remain clear.

Female masks occupy the lowest position in the hierarchy of Wee masks, as they are subordinate to male masks which, despite being used for entertainment on occasion, were primarily significant for their influence in social and political domains. Beyond gender, masks can also be categorised depending on their social functions.

Wè masks were usually stored outside the village on racks in sacred huts. However, due to rising instances of theft over recent decades, they are more often wrapped in fabric and stored under the beds of high-ranking lineage members. Masks are then cleaned and prepared before use in official ceremonies.

Distinguishing Features

  • Iron stuck to top
  • Oval face
  • Bulging oval eyes with narrow slits
  • Headband of kaolin adorns eyes
  • Hemmed lips
  • Brass tacks often found on cheeks forehead
  • Circle of brass bells over a fringe of human hair around edge
  • Scarification finely carved and accented with heads of copper nails
  • Claws of civet and feline attached to mask
  • For performances, mask surmounted by long conical cap covered with red cloth and embroidered with cowries

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