Geh-Naw (Initiation Headdress)

By: Kathryn Cua || Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The geh-naw is an initiation headdress worn by the Chu-den-zo initiation society of the Bassa people in Liberia. The Bassa are a part of Poro society, brought into it by the neighbouring Dei and Kpelle people.

As a result, the Bassa practice gree-gree bush culture. A gree-gree bush is an enclosure where the societal and spiritual curriculum is taught to young members of an initiation society. In graceful, gliding movements, dancers use the geh-naw to entertain spectators at celebratory events such as when important guests visit the village or when young initiates return to the village from gree-gree bush camps.

The geh-naw (also called gela) senior entertainment headdress is composed of a wooden mask and fabric. The mask is worn on a dancer’s forehead, attached by a woven framework. Fabric drapes down from the periphery of the mask and covers the dancer’s head and upper body. Slits are located in the fabric where the eyes are so the wearer may see through it. The headdress is also used by the members of Bassa’s principal men’s society called the No. The faces of geh-naw headdresses have composed, refined qualities reinforcing femininity in the dances No men perform. These dances are meant to communicate desirable qualities women are expected to possess.

Bassa masks remained practically unknown outside of Liberia until the mid-twentieth century. It wasn’t until April 1969 that they made their appearance in considerable numbers in the Euro-American art market.

Distinguishing Features

  • Hollowed oval, deeply concave form
  • Carefully articulated plaited coiffure (sometimes with nails inserted)
    • Plaits are often odd-numbered
    • Minor plaits being distributed on both sides of a larger central crest
  • Upper and lower sections of face clearly demarcated
    • Two planes meet at acute angle to form cresent moon shape
  • Naturalistic facial features
    • Forehead decorated with median rib
    • Heavy eyelids or hanging flaps indicated
    • Coffee-bean eyes of horizontal or slanted slits
    • C-shaped ears. Often the lobes have holes
    • Triangular nose with nostrils indicated
    • Full, circular or rectangular pursed lips
    • Mouth often open with two or more teeth occasionally protruding
    • Pointed chin
  • Some have incised crosshatched 'tattoo' running vertically from top of forehead to top of nose
    • Sometimes extends down to chin
    • Kaolin rubbed into tattoos to accentuate them
  • Pierced around rim for attachment
  • Dark brown or black patina
    • Kaolin spots applied to cheeks and forehead
    • Inside of headdress does not show characteristic patina caused by contact with wearer's face

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