The awesome heads appeared out of the night, looming 10 feet or more above the ground. Their fierce, painted faces glinted in the flickering light of a bonfire as hundreds of villagers sang and danced to thundering drums.
The spectacle so impressed Drid Williams, an American dancer who visited Africa in the mid-1960s, that she commissioned a pair of the masks -- one female and one male -- then kept them for 30 years as prized possessions.
Now the objects, the only matched pair of Bedu masks known to exist outside Africa, are about to become the most recent additions to the Baltimore Museum of Art's collections. (On Tuesday, the board of trustees is expected to give the transaction its official stamp of approval.)
The acquisition is significant because the masks represent an example of late 20th-century African art, an area in which the museum is trying to expand its holdings.
"These pieces have aspects about them that are very much about contemporary art: They are multimedia, they involve performance and installation and they allow us to recognize that African art continues to be a living, vibrant tradition," said BMA director Doreen Bolger.
"It's very exciting that we are able to move the African collection into the contemporary field and appeal to audiences who are interested in contemporary art."
Many objects found in African collections were created not primarily as art, but as works of religious and ceremonial significance.
In recent years, the BMA, like many museums in Europe and the United States, has been working to present its African objects in context -- rather than displaying them simply as beautiful art. The Bedu masks, then, hold particular significance because they were actually used in ceremonial rituals and have arrived with their accompanying costumes intact.
"These [masks] are extremely important to the museum right now, because of our efforts to show African art in its complete form and in all its complexity," said Fred Lamp, chief curator of the arts of Africa, Asia, the Americas & Oceania.
"Moreover, they come with their costumes collected in the field and thus will be the first complete ensemble in our collection."
A 'peak experience'
The masks' route from Ivory Coast to the BMA has been a long and circuitous one.
In 1967, a colleague urged Williams, then a visiting modern dance instructor at the University of Ghana, to seek out the fabled dance of the Bedu masks, an annual ritual performed by the Nafana in neighboring Ivory Coast.
Williams traveled to the town of Tambi to see the huge, carved wooden masks, each weighing more than 20 pounds, being worn by male dancers dressed in long raffia gowns made from wood fibers. She was one of the first Americans ever to witness the ceremony and the experience proved unforgettable.
"Occasionally a research experience can be what psychologists call a 'peak experience,' " she later wrote in the journal African Arts. "The Bedu dances were such an experience for me."
The Nafana people are Muslim, but also follow their own traditions. They hold the Bedu mask ceremony nightly during late November and early December, weeks that coincide with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Normally the sacred masks, which represent spirits with magical healing and protective powers, are carefully dismantled and buried after two or three seasons, thus symbolically completing the cycle of birth, life and death.
But Williams' visit presented her with a unique opportunity: She commissioned a pair of masks from the village carver, a man named Koffi Dzeraba, who fashioned them from the broad roots of the silk cotton tree. The masks were used in dances by the Nafana during the ceremony in 1969, then presented to Williams before she left the country.
"I've carried those masks around with me for 30 years," Williams, now 72, said in a telephone interview last week from her home near Minneapolis, Minn.
"After having carried one of those masks on my head from the village where it was carved, I'm very glad they've finally found a home where they'll be looked after and people will be able to see them."
Africa to England to U.S.
When Williams left Ghana in 1970, she took the masks to England, where she earned a doctorate in anthropology at Oxford University. During that period, they were exhibited at an art museum in Liverpool.
In 1976, she returned to the United States and eventually took a teaching job at New York University. Later, she earned a master's degree in library science from Indiana University in Bloomington, then taught the anthropology of dance and human movement at the University of Sydney in Australia from 1986 to 1990. Each time she moved, she took the masks.
But in 1990, when Williams returned to Africa for three years, she left the Bedu masks in the care of the Australian National Museum in Sydney, which wanted to exhibit them.