Wunkirmian or wakemia, roughly translated as ‘spoon associated with feasts’, are carved by artists in Dan communities of Liberia and the Ivory Coast to serve as badges of prestige, symbols of status and bearers of spiritual powers.
These sculptural spoons, with their rounded bellies symbolic of the female body or womb, acknowledge an individual woman of the village, the wakede or wunkirle (‘at feasts acting woman’). This is a title of great distinction given only to the most generous and hospitable woman of the village. With the honor, however, comes great responsibility: the wakede prepares the large feast that accompanies masquerade ceremonies and is called upon to welcome and celebrate the masquerade spirits. She must be of generous disposition, gladly offering her hospitality to anyone at any time. She must also be successful and industrious, and a well accomplished farmer.
When the wakede has been chosen, she parades through the village carrying the wunkirmian as an emblem of her status. On the day of the feast, she dances around the village dressed in men’s clothing because ‘only men are taken seriously’. She again carries a wunkirmian as well as a bowl of small coins or grain. With help from female relatives and friends, she distributes these to the children of the community from the deep belly of the spoon, all while dancing and singing a special song. The event celebrates not only the wakede but also women in general as a source of food and life.
When a wakede grows old, she chooses her successor from the young women of her community and, along with the title, passes down her wunkirmian.
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. The role they serve for women of the Dan peoples is similar to that of masks amongst the men. As are masks, each wunkirmian is given a name, and when a new wunkirmian is carved to replace an old one, sacrifices are made to empower it.
To create these esteemed objects, Dan sculptors often use anthropomorphic forms, as well as stylistic elements found in other carvings such as masks and figures. Quality of craftsmanship and complexity of design are indicative of the work’s importance.
Handles often represent the likeness of a human head, human hand, animal head or a variety of abstract designs. According to paramount chief Woto Mongru of Kanple, interviewed by Barbara Johnson in 1983 for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when legs are chosen to be featured as the ladle’s handle (as in the two examples we currently have in our collection), they represent all the people arriving on foot to be fed by its owner, the bowl, rounded and lustrous symbolizing the womb of the ladle’s spirit ‘pregnant’ with rice.
In 1926, Alberto Giacometti reinterpreted the Dan equation between a woman’s womb and the bowl of a spoon in his life-size bronze sculpture Spoon Woman (Femme Cuillère), though he took it further towards abstraction. Like many artists of his time, he admired the bold reinterpretations of the human body expressed by artists from West and Central Africa that had begun to fill Parisian artists’ ateliers during the first decade of the 20th century.