Face and head mask
Place details: W AFRICA. Nigeria / Southern Nigeria? Anambra State? Nri-Awka area?. Cultural Group: Igbo: Local Name: Unknown. Materials: Wood Plant / Pigment / ?. Processes: Carved / Painted / ?. Dimensions: H = 560 mm W = 180 mm Max D = 250 mm Field Collector: Edward Harland Duckworth? When Collected: By 1953 probably Other Owners: Edward Harland Duckworth PRM Source: Edward Harland Duckworth, per R. Haines Acquired: Bequeathed 1972 Related Collections: Photo colls 1998.194.189 same mask
KEYWORD: Mask / Funeral Accessory / CLASS: Mask / Death / Religion / Ritual and Ceremonial / ?.
Object description: Wooden mask carved out of one piece of softwood. Painted white and black/brown. Carved eye, ear and mouth holes. Worn over the face with the top part covering the top of the head. See 1998.194.189 in the photo collections for an image showing someone wearing this mask. [ZM 12/04/2013]
Publications history, trails & websites: Masks 1972.24.67 and 1972.24.139 have both being photographed while being worn and these black and white images are on page 315 of 'The Ekpe Society', by A.J. Udo Ema (see pages 314 to 316 of Nigeria: A Quarterly Magazine of General Interest, no. 16, 4th Quarter 1938). The captions on also on page 315 read: 'Left: A white-faced Ibo mask from the Onitsha district representing the re-embodied spirit of a girl. It is worn by men impersonating girls passing through "nkpu," a ceremony prior to marriage. Right: A mask said to come from Kalabari, but similar to those made by the Anang for the Ekpe Society. The lower jaw is movable.' No accession numbers are included but the one on the left is 1972.24.67 and the one on the right 1972.24.139. In the article the author notes how in some parts of the Efik country men do not consider their social standing adequate unless they are members of the Ekpe Society. Ekpe, means leopard, which in the region is considered the king of the beasts as they are the most ferocious animal found in the area. Membership of the Society was not restricted to men only but could include the eldest daughters of respected families, although only males could attend the ceremonies, meetings and take part in the masquerades. [ZM 1/7/2019]
Featured in Out in Oxford: An LGBTQ+ Trail of the University of Oxford's Collections. Part of 'Celebrating Diversity' a project funded by Arts Council England via the Oxford University Museums Partnership and created with the LGBTQ+ community. [NC 16/02/2017]
See booklet Out in Oxford: An : An LGBTQ+ Trail of the University of Oxford's Collections (published by University of Oxford) [in RDF]: Igbo masks are not just beautiful objects of art, but also important spiritual tools. They give full protection to the person wearing the mask as they embody its spirit when worn during a masquerade. This example is a maiden mask carved from a single piece of softwood and can be identified as female because of its name (Agbogho are maidens known for their beauty), ornate hairstyle, white face and small delicate symmetrical features. They are usually worn by men aged 30-50 from the Igbo people of Nigeria during the Agbogho Mmanwu (Maiden Masquerade). Masquerades are a central part of Igbo life offering reflection, moral insights and entertainment to the community. Men wearing female masks show an understanding of gender and sexuality that does not readily fit into modern European definitions. This fluidity is a celebration of the many ways of being (by JC Niala). [NC 16/02/2017]
See webpage: http://www.glam.ox.ac.uk/outinoxford-prm [printout in RDF]: This is a painted wooden mask from the Nri Awka region of Igboland in south east Nigeria known as a ‘maiden mask’ or ‘maiden spirit mask’. The best known and most widely distributed examples are those from the north central region that represent ‘maiden spirits’, which are typically worn during agricultural festivals (usually held during the dry season) and the funerals of prominent society members. Sometimes referred to as Agbogho Mmanwu or Agbogho Mmuo these masks are carved depicting petite feminine features and painted with a white chalk substance to give them a pale complexion and a spiritual, ghostly quality. On occasion, maiden spirits are invoked alongside other spirits as appropriate escorts of the highly respected dead into the spirit world. During agricultural or other ceremonies, however, maiden spirits appear to aid in watching over the living and to promote abundant harvests, fertility and general prosperity. Maiden spirits are light-hearted in contrast to more menacing spirits of the Igbo world, which often generate a more serious atmosphere. Maiden mask wearers perform almost theatrically, as if in a play, their purpose to entertain both human and spirit audiences.
The ‘fame of the maiden’ masquerade embodies the Igbo ideal of beauty based on both physical and moral dimensions. An ideal girl should be tall and slender, with a long neck, full and pointed breasts, a light complexion and small features, her hair elaborately dressed (preferably in the crested style) and her features brought out by facial tattoos. These observable qualities mirror the spiritual traits desired by Igbo males - purity, as defined by the paleness of her complexion, grace in the form of her facial features and the manner in which the spirit is danced, obedience, good character and generosity. In addition, the crested hairstyle, which is often considered a sign of wealth or royalty, is a symbol of the young Igbo maiden as the source of bride-wealth for her family upon her marriage. Such physical and moral ideals are often not matched in reality, however, and are not necessarily meant to be, as the maiden spirits are transcendent, connecting Igbo desires of beauty and the spiritual awesomeness of the incarnate dead. Maiden mask artists favour red, orange, yellow and black pigments to highlight their carvings, and these can be seen setting off the white of the face on the mask. As in a number of the more elaborate masks, which can have anywhere from one to three hair crests, this maiden has multiple crests dramatically pairing positive and negative space. The white maiden masks, all worn by men, have super structures of several types, indicating spirit characters of different ages. The character of the eldest daughter, called Headload because of her mask's large figured superstructure, leads the others. Her younger sisters, following, have elaborate crested hairstyles and small pointed breasts. All wear bright polychrome appliqué cloth body suits patterned to resemble the monochromatic designs painted on youthful females. Other characters portrayed during masquerades are a mother, a father, sometimes an irresponsible son and a suitor costumed as a titled elder, whose amorous, often bawdy, advances to one or more ‘girls’ are invariably rebuffed. The play unfolds predictably, with the maidens' dances becoming ever faster and more virtuosic as the mask wearers compete with one another for audience approval and even financial reward (by G R Mills). [NC 17/02/2017]
Illustrated in colour on the front cover of Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism (A Norton Critical Edition; ed. Francis Abiola Irele), by Chinua Achebe (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, no date ). Caption (on back cover): 'Mask, pronanly Igbo, from Nigeria. Pitt Rivers Accession 1972.24.67. Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.' [JC 21 12 2015]
Research notes: John Picton examined the Igbo white-faced masks during a consultation visit on 12 November 2013 and noted the following: These white-faced masks are generally worn by middle-aged men (in their thirties and forties) performing the Agbogho mmanwu, which means maiden masquerade (see 1908.20.1, 1912.61.1, 1922.67.24, 1938.15.4 to 6, and 1972.24.67). In this masquerade the masks often appear in a series of staggered performances, for example two masqueraders may appear together one representing the mother and the other the daughter, which will be followed by another two masked performers. This style of mask depicts a female with an ornate hairstyle, which can be part of the actual carved mask or in the case of masks like 1938.15.5 and 6 attachments would be added to the costume to create this kind of hairstyle when these are used in masquerade. The decorated central crest on the top of the head appears to include a row of carved bells. In style this mask is very typical of the white-faced maiden masks from the Nri-Akwa area. [ZM 19/11/2013]
In March 2014 Herbert M. Cole identified this from a photograph as maiden mask and noted the following: Pretty female masks, often called maidens, are usually worn with bright multi-coloured, closely-fitting appliqued costumes. Common traits are white faces with small, delicate symmetrical features and elaborate crested hairstyles, carved as part of the mask or worn as a separate attachment, Usually men between eighteen and twenty-five years old wear these masks. Maiden masqueraders often appear in a group, for instance representing a mother spirit with her daughters. Performances are light-hearted and entertaining, combining exaggerated gestures of femininity with skilful dancing displays. [ZM 13/03/2014]