Lovecraft aficionados will appreciate this mask and its backstory. I snapped the image this weekend at the Seattle Art Museum. It was so delightfully gruesome that I couldn’t pass it by, and when I saw its name — “The Ancient One” — I knew I had to sneak a picture.
The mask is an artifact of the Ivory Coast. It’s a striking example of a “gela” mask, a disguise that supposedly transforms its wearer. The peoples of the Ivory Coast and Liberia believe a gela mask has the power to create a new being composed of the mask, the person wearing the mask, and the costume. The name of the mask, “The Ancient One,” suggests it’s a traditional design dating back many centuries. And no wonder — almost every culture recognizes a shadowy, shifting realm linking the human and animal worlds. This mask is a vivid and imaginative variant of that tradition.
The mask, made of wood, cloth, teeth, horn, feathers, hair, shells, mud, and natural pigments, deliberately combines human and animal features. It’s believed to have the power to absorb the feral passions in a community and redirect them back into the wild — where they belong.
Or so they say.