Liberia and Ivory Coast
"Wunkirle procession"
Artists in Dan communities of the Guinea coast have mastered the art of carving impressive, large wooden spoons that
are virtuoso works of sculpture. The spoons are known by many names, including
wake mia or wunkirmian, which
roughly translates as "spoon associated with feasts." The spoons range in size from a foot to two feet and have one or
(rarely) two parallel bowls. The handle of the spoon is always decorated and often is related to the human form and
often feature a pair of legs like this example.

Among the Dan, the owner of the spoon is called
wa ke de, "at feasts acting woman." It is a title of great distinction that
is given to the most hospitable woman of the village. With the honor, however, comes responsibility—the wa ke de must
prepare the large feast that accompanies masquerade ceremonies. The excellent farming abilities, organizational
talents, and culinary skills of the wa ke de are called upon to properly welcome and celebrate the masquerade spirits.
When a woman has been selected as the main hostess of such a feast, she parades through town carrying the large
spoon as an emblem of her status. On the day of the feast, she dances around the village dressed in men's clothes
because "only men are taken seriously." She carries with her a wunkirmian and displays a bowl filled with small coins or
rice. With help from her numerous assistants (usually female relatives or friends), she distributes grains and coins to the
children of the community while dancing and singing her special shrill song. The deep belly of the spoon from which this
bounty is dispensed becomes the symbolic body or womb of the female figure. The event creates a profound visual
analogy that honors the hostess, and women in general, as a source of food and life.

In addition to being emblems of honor, wunkirmian also have spiritual power. They are a Dan woman's chief liaison with
the power of the spirit world and a symbol of that connection. Among the Dan, the wunkirmian have been assigned a
role among women that is comparable to that which masks serve among the men. In many instances, wunkirmian are
featured in the same ceremonies with masks, tossing rice in front of them as a blessing while they proceed through the

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Feast Ladles
The old woman promised me before she died that if I held the ladle in my hand, my name would become famous
and the ladle would make me rich because it is so finely carved that, out of delight, the people would give me gifts
Doa, a wunkirle (Himmelheber and Tabmen 1965,179)

The wunkirmian or wake mia is a large ceremonial ladle. Its name translates literally as "spoon associated with
feasts." Such ladles are carved to honor a particular woman who has distinguished herself among her fellow women
by generosity and hospitality. Such a woman is known as a wunkirle, or wake de, an "at feasts acting woman"; mian
or mia is the name for any large ladle (Fischer and Himmelheber 1984,123).

The wunkirmian is owned by the wunkirle, who is considered the "most hospitable woman" of her village quarter.
One woman in each quarter is honored with the tide of wunkirle (plural: wunkirlone or wunkade), an honor often
handed down with the wunkirmian. When a wunkirle becomes old she chooses her successor from among the
young women of her quarter. As the Dan are a patrilocal society, and wives usually come from other villages, she
cannot pass on die ladle to her daughter, but instead chooses the woman she believes to be most generous and
industrious to succeed her. Himmelheber, with Tabmen, has summarized best the duties attached to the office of
wunkirle (1965). She offers hospitality to all who come to her door, nor is any group too large for her to feed.
Itinerant bands of musicians and entertainers, for example, find their way to her, and she traditionally delights in
feeding them. In addition, she prepares meals for the men who clear the fields at planting time, and at festivals
provides hospitality to arriving strangers. In order to be able to afford this largess, she must be an industrious
farmer. She must have a husband or son who will do die heavy work of clearing large fields each year, and she
herself must work long and hard to plant and harvest an abundance of rice.

At feast times she marches with her spoon at die head of the line of women from her quarter. Each woman carries a
pot of cooked rice and soup. The wunkirle either distributes the food to the guests, or more frequently uses her
ladle to indicate the distribution. At some feasts the wunkirlone of a village compete with each other in generosity
by distributing small gifts of peanuts, candy, coins, and other foods. The women dance at these times. The
wunkirle's prestige may be indicated by her being carried in a hammock through the village by the women of her
quarter. They also contribute gifts of their own, but always in the name of their wunkirle. Guests in the village, for
the sake of impartiality, decide which wunkirle is the richest and most generous, after which the masks of her village
sing her praises (Himmelheber and Tabmen 1965,174).

A similar tradition was described in some detail from several towns of the Dan-We border area (Kpor 1986, and Dro
1986). One woman from each town quarter is chosen as being the best cook, the strongest and hardest worker,
and most willing to offer hospitality. Every year or so on the occasion of a big cow feast, a particular quarter is
designated to provide the cow. That quarter is also honored by providing its candidate to be the klaywaiyno. Early
in the morning of the feast, after the cow has been killed and some of the meat cooked, the chosen klaywaiyno and
her two women assistants dress in short, knee-length lapas, measures of cloth wrapped and tied around the waist,
and brassieres. They paint white kaolin clay lines on wrists, elbows, ankles, knees, and across the eyes. The
klaywaiyno also drags rice plants behind her from a long rope tied around her waist. She carries her badge of
honor, the feast ladle, called klaywaimina, which corresponds exactly in form to the Dan wunkirmian. Her two
assistants carry either ceremonial wooden pestles, sometimes with a carved head on the end, representing another
function of women, the pounding of rice and other foods in the mortar with the pestle. In some towns they carry only
rice plants.

The klaywaiyno and two assistants dance through the town, the klaywaiyno carrying her feast ladle filled with
cooked rice, spread with red palm oil and cooked meat, stopping as she goes to serve small portions to the most
important men. Later the portions of the cow will be distributed to be cooked and eaten by all.

Among the Dan, after an old wunkirle dies, a festival usually is given to honor her and to inaugurate her successor.
At this time the new wunkirle must prove herself worthy of the honor; the ladle's function is reinforced as she
occasions a sizable distribution of foods and gifts to her village and guests.

Besides being emblems of honor, these ladles have spiritual power. In the words of a wunkirle, Doa, the ladles
contain "all the power and fame of the wunkirle." Ladles embody “du”, and it is that power that enables the wunkirle
to perform her duties in such a way that will make her rich and famous. Wunkirmian are the women's chief liaison
with the power of the spirit world, and the authority symbol of that connection. The Dan say, "The wunkirmian is for
the women what the masks are for the men" (Him-melheber and Tabmen 1965,177). As are masks, each
wunkirmian is given an individual name, e.g. Piase, "Fine face," or Mlanyor, "Lucky Woman" (interviews 1986).
When a new wunkirmian is carved to replace an old one, the du must be induced to enter it, and sacrifices are
made to this end. After funerals, women dance in procession behind wunkirlone with their ladles, using the spirit
power to chase away ghosts of the dead (Dormer 1940, 88). Himmelheber tells of a Dan wunkirle whose ram-
headed ladle had a horn broken off. According to the wunkirle, the horn was broken by fighting with another ladle in
a meeting of wunkirmian spirits in the bush (Negerkunst, 1960,166).

These ladles have a spiritual connection with the masks. Thus the wunkirlone, ladles in hand, often appear with the
mask-wearers, tossing rice in front of them as a blessing (Himmelheber, "Sculptors," 1964, 245). When the
gunlagle, the judge-mask of the village quarter, makes its appearance, all the wunkirlone of the village must
participate, dance, and honor the mask by giving it gifts (Himmelheber and Tabmen 1965,175). Wunkirmian are
carved in several different forms. The most common form has a handle carved in the likeness of a human head.
The face is usually the oval, slit-eyed face of the deangle mask. It often has a vertical line from forehead to nose
that represents tattoo markings, and a band of white kaolin frequently is painted across the eyes, representing a
cosmetic practice of Dan women. The head usually has a carved hairdo, often trimmed with black-dyed plant fiber,
sometimes representing hairstyles no longer seen but fashionable at one time. Decorative incisions often are made
around the neck at the base of the head, and vertical lines are carved in eyebrows to represent cosmetic plucking.
The neck often has incised rings, representing neck creases, which emphasize the beauty of a long neck.

Apparently the face on the ladle is intended to portray a specific woman. Harley writes of a Janus-faced ladle, said
to have been carved about 1860 in We country to portray a wunkirle named Ma Boa, or "What thing do I lack?". On
the back of the handle was carved the portrait of her favorite helper in feast preparation, Nying Gli, "Dry your tears"
(1950, 40). Himmelheber and Tabmen also wrote and amply illustrated that the face on the ladle was indeed
intended as a portrait of its original owner (1965,176). A portrait in this context is a stylized one, emphasizing
individual elements such as a special tattoo, scarification markings, or coiffures, yet staying within the traditional

Another form that may be given to the handle of the wunkirmian is a pair of legs. This makes the bowl of the ladle
represent the upper part of the body, presenting a wonderful abstraction of the human form. Legs on a feast ladle
are said to represent the legs of all the people arriving on foot to be fed by the wunkirle (Woto Mongru 1983).

Other handle forms include the human hand, said to represent the strong grip of the wunkirle (Woto Mongru 1983).
Animal heads also are seen, specifically sheep, goats, or cows, either representing the sacrificial animals at a feast
or perhaps a woman's dowry (Zerlee 1983). Sometimes the handle ends in a little bowl, again suggesting food, or in
a number of abstract designs.

Source: "Four Dan Sculptors - Continuity and Change"
Click on image to see
high resolution photo
Ivory Coast or Liberia
wakemia, of anthropomorphic form, the bent muscular legs with faceted rings encircling the ankles, the defined knees
and tapering hips beneath a central faceted neck supporting the hollowed oval ladle, decorated at the reverse with
incised geometric motifs mimicking those found on the bodies of Dan women; exceptionally fine, varied encrusted
blackened patina.
height 22 3/4in.    57.8cm
J. J. Klejman, New York, 1965

Cf. Fischer and Himmelheber (1984: 131} for a related standing figurative spoon. The spoon represents the spirit of
generosity of the person who received it. It is brandished during the dance of the hospitable women who have been
given the honor of preparing the feast, followed by her assistants (Barbier, ed. 1993: 72).
This superbly rendered spoon shows signs of great age with its layered blackened surface and rounded forms. This
level of sophistication as a work of great abstract sculpture is rare in African art. The suggestion of human form in the
muscularity of the legs is here combined with an elegant use of repeating linear motifs to break the sensuousness of the
rounded volumes. The placement of surface decoration in the manner of scarification demonstrates the highly
anthropomorphic nature of the spoon.

Sotheby's November 16, 2002
Sold for $50,788.00
Ladle, 20th century (before 1960)
Zlan of Belewale
Dan peoples; Liberia or Côte d'Ivoire
Wood, pigment; L. 23 in. (58.4 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.254)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Property from the Leaf Collection, Mexico
LOT 74 - A magnificent Dan female spoon height 18 3/4 in. (47.6cm.)
Estimate $70,000-90,000
SOLD for $129,000

Standing on abstract wedge-shaped feet, with muscular legs tapering to narrow hips, and rounded buttocks
beneath the abstract arching torso with diminutive breasts and the back carved as an elongated ellipse with
pointed ends and a raised medial ridge for the spine, leading to a hollowed elliptical ladle with two grooved
vertical strips framing the raised medial ridge on the reverse, incised scarification in vertical panels on the
calves, thighs, and torso; exceptionally fine and varied blackened patina.

The Dan are famous for their unique large and finely sculpted wooden spoons. These large spoons have both a
symbolic and practical function. The spoon serves as a messenger for social structure as the owner of the large
spoon in a village is the woman who has distinguished herself both by her efficiency and her generosity. She is
both responsible for the administration of the food for her extended family, and hospitable to all — family, friends
and strangers.   In order to reach this level the wakede is helped by a spirit, which incarnates in her large spoon,
called 'the spoon spirit' (Fischer and Himmelheber, 1984:123).

This seemingly utilitarian object was sculpted with as much care as fine statues among the Dan, showing similar
attention to detail. 'The spoon represents the spirit of generosity of the person who received it. It is brandished
during the dance of the hospitable women who has been given the honor of preparing the repast, followed by
her assistants (Barbier [ed.] 1993:72).'

While the use and symbolism of the Dan spoon has been well established, the level of sculptural sophistication
and abstraction which the carver of this spoon has reached in the working of this superb example is almost
without parallel in African art. The suggestion of a human form in the muscularity of the leg is here combined with
an elegant use of hollowed spaces on the back of the torso and reverse of the spoon. In addition, the surface
decoration in the form of scarification and incised notches serve to highlight the overall form.
Sotheby's May 2002 - Lot 60  A FINE DAN SPOON
standing on wedge-shaped feet, the muscular splayed legs leading to rounded buttocks and tapering to a
squared-torso supporting the large, faceted elliptical ladle, decorated at the front of the body and back of the legs
and ladle with incised linear motifs imbued with kaolin; varied dark brown patina.
height 21 in.
Pace Primitive and Ancient Art, New York
Estimate $15,000-25,000
African Dan Cote d'Ivoire
Feast-making Spoon (Wunkirmian),n.d.
24 3/16 x 6 7/16 x 2 13/16 in.
Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company
Seattle Art Museum
LOT 130

Paris  20,000—30,000 EUR  Session 1
15 Jun 04 2:30 PM

Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   24,000 EUR ($31,418.40 USD)
Property from an American Private Collector

New York  50,000—70,000 USD  Session 1
17 May 02 10:15 AM

Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   65,725 USD

height 20 3/4in. (52.7cm.)

wakemia, of anthropomorphic form, the wedge-shaped feet with ankles encircled by copper rings beneath
muscular legs with defined kneecaps and rounded hips and buttocks beneath a central ornately carved
neck with raised repeating ridges supporting the elegantly shaped oval ladle with raised medial ridge on
the reverse and deeply incised scarification markings mimicking those found of the bodies of Dan women;
exceptionally fine and varied encrusted blackened patina overall.

Cf. Fischer and Himmelheber (1984:131) for a related spoon standing on legs. This exceptional spoon, a
seemingly utilitarian object, was sculpted with as much care as the finest figurative statues amongst the
Dan, showing similar attention to detail. 'The spoon represents the spirit of generosity of the person who
received it. It is brandished during the dance of the hospitable women who has been given th honor of
preparing the feast, followed by her assistants (Barbier (ed.) 1993:72)'

This superbly rendered spoon shows signs of great age with its layered blackened surface and
roundedness of forms. This level of sophistication as a work of great abstract sculpture is rare in African
art. The suggestion of human form in the muscularity of the legs is here combined with an elegant use of
repeating linear form to break the sensuousness of the rounded volumes. The placement of surface
decoration highlights the very anthropomorphic nature of the spoon.
Superb Anthropomorphic Dan Spoon

GALLERY:  Merton D. Simpson Gallery, Inc.

MATERIALS:  Wood and metal

SIZE:  h: 17.5 in / h: 44.4 cm

REGION:  Ivory Coast
Rand African Art
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