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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Igbo, Urhobo : Igbo Idoma Wooden Dance Mask
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Igbo Idoma Wooden Dance Mask - PF.1238
Origin: Southeastern Nigeria
Circa: 1870 AD to 1910 AD
Dimensions: 10.875" (27.6cm) high x 6.5" (16.5cm) wide
Collection: African
Style: Igbo
Medium: Wood

Location: United States
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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.

Two types of masks, depicting the beautiful and the fierce or ugly, are worn by a number of peoples living in southeastern Nigeria. These masks are the prerogative of the Ekpo (ghost) society, a men's association dedicated to propitiating ancestors for the good of the community, upholding the powers of the elders and maintaining social order (Murray, "Masks and Headdresses of Nigeria", 1949). During annual celebrations, members perform masquerades representing a village's ancestors.

The two masks are a study in contrasts. The fierce or ugly type are called "Idok Ekpo" and represent people who were immoral and evil and were therefore transformed at death into ghosts and forced to wander for eternity. They feature coarse, misshaped or diseased features and are painted dark colors. Beautiful masks (Mfon Ekpo) such as this example have delicate features, and are painted white or light colors. They represent ancestors who led moral and upright lives. This "Mfon Ekpo" is carved of an oval form, the small mouth open to reveal the carved teeth, the elongated nose pointed slightly upwards, small slit eyes pierced through below arched brows, semi-circular ears, the tapering forehead with a cap like coiffure, a projecting ridge over the forehead.

Masks might last 20 years if repainted and oiled annually and stored away from termites (Messenger, "The Traditional Artist in African Societies, 1989). The uneven surface of this example suggests that it had been painted many times.
- (PF.1238)


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