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Peabody Museum Announces Masked Festivals of Canton Bo, Southwest Ivory Coast
A masked spirit during a festival in Canton Bo, 1986. Photo by Monni Adams.

CAMBRIDGE, MA.- Anthropologist and art historian Dr. Monni Adams was warned by villagers as she awaited the arrival of a masked forest spirit during a festival. “Stand back,” they told her, “we are not responsible for its behavior. It might knock your camera down.” She watched the masked spirit enter the village, brandishing a long stick and surrounded by three guardians with their own sticks.

Adams had traveled to western Africa to decode the distinctive costumes, masks, and behaviors of the masked spirits, and to discover the meaning of their roles in the festivals and the region.

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and Tozzer Library, Harvard University present a new exhibition by Dr. Adams, Masked Festivals of Canton Bo, Southwest Ivory Coast. The exhibition opens Wednesday, May 27, 2009 and will remain on view through March 31, 2010.

The African masks that inspired painters like Picasso in the early 20th century were only a small part of a larger cultural context and spectacle. The festivals of Canton Bo, located in the dense forest region of eastern Liberia and western Ivory Coast, centered on the spirit forms of ancient ancestors who appeared in post-harvest festivals wearing carved masks, paint and bulky skirts of straw, animal hide, and textiles. Until the 2002 Ivory Coast civil strife, the Bo people invited the masked spirits each year to protect their village against unknown threats, and to stimulate fertility for both women and crops. With such protection and fertility, the whole community would prosper.

Adams’ research reveals how men of Canton Bo assume different masked spirit roles, including male, female, young, old, singer, dancer, comic, judge, and adulterer. Adams’ initial puzzlement in some cases led to a more complete understanding of the spirits’ roles and how they served the community. For example, she found the cantankerous masked spirit baffling until she learned that it was supposed to suspect animosity and attacks. “People loved that. It made them feel that the spirit would defend their community against any slight or unseen threat.” Adams’ investigations shows that while some masked spirits helped the community feel protected, others created opportunities for increased fertility among the women, two of the most important features of the festivals.

Dr. Monni Adams is an anthropologist and art historian who has studied visual arts and ritual in sub-Saharan Africa and eastern Indonesia. Adams is currently Peabody Museum Research Associate for Africa and Oceania. She is the author of the catalogue for her exhibition at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Designs for Living: Symbolic Communication in African Art.

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