Kanaga (Celestial Mask)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The Dogon once believed that death did not exist, believing instead that immortal humans lived as serpents. However due to mankind breaking a religious restriction, people developed limited life-spans and eventually died. The first Dogon ancestor to die transformed into a serpent before metamorphosing into his permanent spiritual form. This change into the spirit form (nyama – 'soul and vital force of the ancestor') brought about negative influences to the community. As such, the villagers carved a wara mask (also called dannu; the 'Great Mask' or 'Mother of Masks') in the belief that the mask would hold the nyama of the deceased ancestor. As the wara mask is believed to hold the spirit of the first deceased ancestor, it is used during the Sigi ceremony, held once every 60 years, commemorating the transformational process of the first ancestor.

The kanaga mask is used during the funeral ceremony of a deceased male community member that took part in a Sigi ceremony. The Dama ceremony, held every 10 - 15 years during a good harvest, takes place after burial as a means to guide the deceased's nyama out of the village and into the realm of spirits. Preceding the sirige mask and preceded by dancers on stilts, the kanaga masquerade performs energetic dances in the village square, reenacting what the Dogon believe to be the creation of earth and life. The athletic and skilled dancer swings the mask in circular motions, touching the tip of the mask to the ground to represent the sun and its life giving properties.

It is unknown what the mask itself represents but some sources have interpreted the mask's superstructure to represent the connection between earth and the heavens. Other sources state that the mask represents a bird or a female spirit.

Distinguishing Features

  • Made of wood
  • Flat, plank superstructure on top of mask
    • Mask topped by short vertical pole
    • Two horizontal, parallel bars across the vertical pole
    • Short vertical elements projecting from ends of each bar
    • Vertical element project upwards from the upper blade & downwards from the lower blade
  • Pierced, diamond-shaped section links mask with superstructure
  • Mask takes the form of rectangular box with an arched forehead
    • Mask topped by short vertical pole
    • Two pointed ears project from mask
    • Arrow shaped nose
    • Deep set rectangular eyes
    • Rope net attached to back of mask

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