Face and head mask

Place details: W AFRICA. Nigeria. Southern Nigeria? Anambra State? Nri-Awka area?. Cultural Group: (northcentral Igbo) Local Name: Unknown. Materials: Wood Plant / Pigment / ?. Processes: Carved / Painted / ?. Dimensions: H = 560 mm, W = 180 mm Max Depth = 250 mm When Collected: By 1953 probably Acquired: Bequeathed 1972 Related Collections: Photo colls 1998.194.189 same mask

KEYWORD: Mask / Funeral Accessory / CLASS: Mask / Death / Religion / 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: 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 [2015]). 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]