Home Forums African Artifacts/ art work/museum Igbo Artifacts: The Mask (a link between the living and the dead.

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    Victory Amah

      Igbo art is usually any piece of visual art originating from the Igbo people. they produce a wide variety of art including traditional figures, masks, artifacts, and textiles, plus works in metals such as bronze. Artworks from the Igbo have been found from as early as the 9th century with bronze artifacts found at Igbo Ukwu. The Masks in Igbo art will be discussed in this article.

      The purpose of the masks varies within Igbo culture in both historic and modern times. For specific segments of the Igbo population, some mask pairs have been traditionally interpreted as representing the duality of beauty and ugliness. The former is depicted as the maiden spirit and the latter as the elephant spirit.


      The masquerade performances have been tied to a duality, their function primarily relating to gender difference and the initiation ritual during which Igbo boys become men. Young women are excluded from performing and are, therefore, passive witnesses. The rituals associated with mask-wearing establish and maintain gender differences. Additionally, the experience of ritual mask-wearing is related to the alleviation of sexual and social anxieties that result from the boy moving from his childhood home and away from his mother.

      These masquerade events are held to maintain connections with the deceased; the masks usually become the physical embodiment of those no longer living, which facilitates the flow of blessings and knowledge between generations. Knowledge of the secret aspects of the ritual is limited to initiated men who then have access to the supernatural tools necessary to contend with pressing socio-cultural concerns. However, the overall ceremonies serve as the site for important processes of communal healing, continuity, and connection. Joy is intermixed with grief as the living can again interact with those that have been lost.


      The use of masks within Igbo culture has been usually portrayed as an uninterrupted tradition or as a tradition impossibly altered by cross-cultural interactions. Although, recent scholars perceive contemporary Igbo masquerade performance to be the product of selectively-adapted external influences that perpetuate the traditional aims of the activity. Pre-colonial conceptions of aesthetic experience and artistic goals were reworked and understood through new paradigms introduced by cross-cultural movements.

      For contemporary viewers of masks within the context of museums, the inability to see such sculptures in motion as part of performances makes understanding difficult. The effect intended by the artist in terms of experience is limited to the one static perspective that the display permits. The exhibiting of masks emphasizes the object itself which is not always the most important aspect of the multimedia and multisensory ritual performance.


      Without the full costume and the atmosphere of music, spoken or sung words, and physical movements, the full meaning of masks is lost. The same physical object, when placed in different performance contexts, can symbolize different things which makes interpretations difficult after collection.


      In the art that is the mask, there is a kind of mask that is known as the Eze Nwanyi Mask. Eze Nwanyi translates to the Queen Mother, and this mask represents a  wealthy, senior wife and grandmother who commands enormous respect in the village. She embodies the ultimate feminine ideals of strength, wisdom, beauty, stature, and dignity, and is a leader among women. This mask is worn in performances that occur at funerals and ceremonies that purify the village and other communal places.

      Agbogho mmuo or Maiden Spirit masquerades perform annually during the dry season in the Nri-Awka area of northern Igboland. At these performances men dance as adolescent girls, miming and exaggerating the girls’ beauty and comportment. The performance is also accompanied by musicians who sing tributes to both real and spirit maidens. These masks showcase an ideal image of an Igbo maiden. This ideal is made up of the smallness of a young girl’s features and the whiteness of her complexion, which is an indication that the mask is a spirit. This whiteness is created using a chalk substance used for ritually marking the body in both West Africa and the African Diaspora. The chalky substance is also used in uli design, created and exhibited on the skin of Igbo women. Some maiden spirit masks have elaborate coiffeurs, embellished with representations of hair combs, and other objects, modeled after late 19th-century ceremonial hairstyles.

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