Passport Mask

In West Africa, masks are considered sacred objects, reserved for use in rituals, ceremonies and initiations. Oftentimes they can only be handled by initiated individuals with proper training, wisdom and experience. Particularly among the Dan people and their neighbors, masks are believed to be a medium through which they communicate with their ancestors and the spirit world. In addition to regular masks, there are also miniature copies called 'passport masks.' These are most prevalent among the Dan people but also common among neighboring tribes.

Small enough to fit in the palm of one's hand, passport masks were never made to be worn and openly displayed. Instead, they were kept out of sight, sometimes sewn onto a piece of cloth and carried around the neck or arm as a personal amulet. Despite their size these miniature masks were considered to hold as much power as their larger counterparts. For example, the Dan believed the world was divided into the realms of the living and the spiritual: the village and the forest. When leaving the village to hunt or travel, they would carry passport masks as protective charms.

The passport mask was also significant in these West African tribes as a 'witness' to the initiation of adolescent boys into secret societies. Once initiated, the passport mask functioned as proof of one's position within it, which was useful when traveling to other villages. In time, passport masks became a form of tribal identification, each culture with their own distinct styles.