Sacred objects – the importance of secrecy and knowledge

Sacred objects kept secret, safeguarding special knowledge


To begin with a concrete example, found among the Guro people of Ivory Coast, the three gu, zamble and zauli masks are sacred objects, used during sacrifices performed in the home. As a result of the masks’ sacred quality, women and the uninitiated were subject to a formal interdiction that forbade them from seeing the masks when they were not being worn (Fischer 1985, 26).

These two aspects cultural practices and an interdiction based on the object’s visibility are the principal elements of the sacred that affect the objects we are concerned with.

Guro Dance & Guro Mask, Ivory Coast


Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)

Indeed, Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), in The elementary forms of the religious life (2), defines the sacred as the domain of bans and interdictions, magically removed from rational considerations. 


In the same way, blacksmiths’ tools from the Luba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (3) are seen only at royal coronations: at other times, nobody is allowed to look upon these objects, which are kept in a sacred protected area (A. Roberts 1998, 70).

The relationship between people and objects is established in a sacred context, governed by sacrifices and interdictions. The object is a medium invested with powers that allow human beings to communicate with supernatural beings and spirits.
In the Ashanti civilisation in Ghana (4), fertility dolls, akua-ha, are fed by their owners (A. Roberts 1994, 44).

Fertility Figure, Akuaba are wooden ritual fertility dolls from Ghana and nearby areas. (3)
Blacksmiths tools from Luba Peoples Democratic Republic of the Congo.(4)


The importance of secrecy governs social relations, in which certain objects play a role due to the powers that have been granted to them (M. Nooter 1993, 24). In general, sacred objects are fundamentally associated with knowledge. Owning them or knowing about them commands attention and silence from those who cannot have access to them. Some kinds of knowledge can become dangerous in the hands of those who may take advantage of them to perform evil deeds. Among the Baule people of Ivory Coast, the masks are carefully kept secret, stored in places hidden from view (5). Seeing a mask is a process of initiation for an apprentice, specific to each culture, and not everyone is allowed to experience it (Vogel 1997, 65).

The object becomes the medium that establishes a distance from the ‘profane’, through the lens of several actions that combine to safeguard knowledge through the use of codes and abstract symbols, as well as by keeping the object hidden from view.

Baule people of Ivory Coast (5) , the masks are carefully kept secret, stored in places hidden from view


Thus, the greater the proximity to the hidden knowledge, the more the aspect of the object that symbolises it consists of a sort of multifaceted accumulation or amalgamation of different elements, as is the case for the kòmò masks used by the Bamana people in Mali (5). Belonging to the category of horizontal masks, these objects are hidden from view, being protected by cases or sacred wood. The initiation process surrounding them leads to a greater level of abstraction (Nooter 1993, 25).

Kòmò masks used by the Bamana people in Mali (5) 


Editor in chief & Expert: Alain Naoum

Editor:Coryse Mwape Dolin

Art Historian, African Arts


Emile Durkheim.- Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuses. 1912.
Hélène Joubert, Marc-Léo Félix et Marceau Rivière.- Image de la femme dans l’art africain. Tours, 2001. 
Mary Nooter
.- Secrecy : African arts that conceals and reveals. New York, The Museum for African Art, 1993.
Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts.- Memory. Luba art and he making of history. New York/Munich, The Museum for African Art/Preste, 1996.
Susan M. Vogel.- Baule African Art. Western eyes. African Arts 30 (4) : 64-77, 95.

Illustration Source

Guro Mask, Ivory Coast – Alain Naoum Antique African Art
Guro Dance:
Emile Durkheim (1854-1917)
Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse
Bow stands from Bemba culture, neighbors of the Luba peoples. (C) Audrey I. Richards (before 1930) in Roberts & Roberts 1996, 82.
Ashanti doll, akwa ba, Ashanti, Ghana (in Joubert et al. – Image de la femme dans l’art africain. 2001 (p. 32)
Kple Kple Mask, Baule peoples, Ivory Coast (source :
Kòmò mask, Bamana peopls, Mali. Private Collection (C) Musee de l’Homme.
Kòmò masquerade, Bamana peoples, Mali (C) Zahan