Toma Passport Mask - Liberia

Settled in the dense rainforests of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the Toma organize their political and religious life around the poro society, one of the responsibilities of which is the initiation of young boys. The primary mask that called youths to their period of initiation was the landai, a representation of a primordial ancestor and an embodiment of poro itself, which would symbolically devour boys to bring them rebirth as men.

Landai were worn only by men and could be quite large, reaching several feet in length. However, the Toma, like many cultures in western Africa, also produced a class of smaller masks, referred to by collectors as passport masks. These were miniature replicas or surrogates of primary masks that could be readily concealed and carried on travels by their users.

The diminutive landai presented here shows a classic design with abstract human features in an elongated, half-oval face. A crown-like brow, crested with three horn appendages, dramatically overhangs the eyes. A small fabric panel is attached on the reverse. The whole mask is heavily encrusted with a rich, textural patina that evinces a significant history of ritual use.

 

First half of 20th century
3” h 1 ¾” w
Wood, fabric
Provenance: Private US collection
#542
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