This massive and powerful dark-painted semi-helmet mask was made by the Igbo (Ibo) of Nigeria. It is a classically exaggerated example, with a large jaw, sinuous facial profile, high cheekbones and a high forehead covered by a prominent item of headwear with a raised crown. The face is exceptionally strong, with a huge nose, serene, half-closed, hooded eyes and a grimacing mouth that exposes the teeth. Detailing is minimal but effective, comprising several plugs by the ears (three on the viewer’s right side, two on the left), a central extension hanging onto the brow from the hat, two sets of plugs (two on the viewer’s left, one on the right) on the forehead, and a white-painted cross beneath each eye. The drama of the piece is heightened by the dark colour scheme, although careful scrutiny indicates that it has had many re-paintings over a long life. This is confirmed by the presence of many nails in different styles and orientations, implying the previous presence of various superstructures and, presumably, costumes. Patination of the bare wood inside the mask is convincingly dark and glossy, along with clear adze marks from the carving process. There is a large hole on either side of the jaw, indicating the previous presence of a bite bar which would have been held in the wearer’s teeth to prevent it from falling off during performances.
The Igbo (Ibo) of the Northern Niger River Delta are one of the largest and most important tribal groups in West Africa. They are culturally highly complex, with a political system based upon a loose form of chiefdom/kingship in some areas, and a democratic panel of decision-makers in others. Social life was usually governed by a number of secret societies. Their main god is Chukwu (literally “Great Spirit”), the creator of the world, who is also linked to the sun and all that grows and lives. Social conduct is governed by Ogu-na-Ofo, spirits who defend the innocent against unjust charges. If a guilty person appeals to them for help, they will be cursed by Amadioha (the god of thunder and lightning). There are numerous other gods that deal with issues as diverse as Ahia Njoku (yams) to Ikenga (fortune and industry) and Agwu (medicine men). Each person has a god named Chi, which is essentially an embodiment of a person’s fate.
The Igbo are known for their artistic diversity, due to the wide range of environments and local histories to which their culture is exposed. Standard sculpture includes Alusi figures – large, public figures designed to embody the spirits of significant gods – and also Ikenga figures, which are kept on personal altars in private homes. Masks are usually associated with initiation ceremonies and entertainment; the powerful construction and appearance of this piece presumably had considerable resonance in the eyes of susceptible young initiates, which would justify its status as an instrument of social control.
This is a powerful and impressive piece of African art, and a worthy addition to any good collection of the genre.
- (PF.3176 (LSO))