The Zaouli Mask Dance of the Ivory Coast

A homage to feminine beauty, this traditional West African performance art is protected by UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, 2017

Each Guro village in the Ivory Coast has its prized Zaouli dancer. Although always incarnated by a man, the mask itself represents the beautiful daughter of Zaouli ― Djela Lon Zaouli  ―the Lion’s daughter.

Photography of a Zaouli mask and dancer.
Image: Le Baobab N’Gourmantché

Zaouli, Through the Eyes of the Observer

“At the outset the dancer uses pompom like objects to signal the rate of the drum beat. The dance itself is physically demanding, and the dancer undertakes a type of duel with the audience. He must showcase his talent, originality and dexterity, by performing diverse dance steps that must not be repeated. The upper body remains almost still, while the legs and feet create a mesmerizing spectacle. The clothing worn accentuates the motion of the legs, a striped or checked fabric cloak conceals the upper body, and only a mask and hands remain in view. The wrists are swathed with ruffs constructed of raffia as are the ankles. Brightly shaped narrow trousers and layers of seed pods accentuate the ankles and create a rhythmic sound during the dance.” 

Ethnic Jewels Magazine

“Donning a Zaouli mask has a profound effect on its wearer. The bearer changes; the spirits take control of him. He is separated from all that happens around him … Once he puts the mask on, it will no longer be him dancing, but the spirit that possesses his body. When [this] happens, the dance is fast and furious; the masked man churning up dust beneath his feet. Provoked to keep up the pace by [the frenetic rhythm of the drum and flute], it’s a superhuman effort guided by the spirits.”

―  Chief Hyppolite Anoh of the artistic troupe Sotheca

Through the Photographer’s Lens

Through Movement and Sound

Sources and Further Reading:

Web:

  • UNESCO. (2017). Zaouli, popular music and dance of the Guro communities in Côte d’Ivoire. Retrieved March 25, 2019, from Intangible Cultural Heritage.
  • Ethnic Jewels Magazine. Zaouli. Retrieved March 25, 2019, from Ethnic Jewels Magazine.
  • Nurse, E. & Page, T. (October 11, 2016). Possession obsession: What happens when you don the Zaouli mask. Retrieved March 25, 2019, from CNN. 

Video:

  • [Fr, Eng subs] The Mask Collective. (March 16, 2014). Interview avec la troupe Zaouli de la ville de Bouaflé, Côte d’Ivoire. Retrieved March 25, 2019, from Youtube.
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