The Masked Rituals of Afikpo

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"The people of the Afikpo Village-Group in the East Central State of Nigeria have developed an elaborate masquerade tradition which, with its close relationship to the menÕs secret society and the annual festival cycle, constitutes an important part of Afikpo life. Because a mask creates a screen between its wearer and the audience, it allows the performers often to act more candidly than they ordinarily do; and so it is in the masked plays that one finds satire and significant comment on Afikpo social practices." footnote 1

--Simon Ottenberg

Some masks represent animals--a goat, a monkey, or a bird. Others are human-like male or female spirits. One represents a white person. Some appear as younger beings, others are older. Their style is streamlined, distinctive, almost delicate: oval or elongated, narrower than the human head and projecting forward from the face, bands of raffia tied to the back of the mask to hold it in front of the face. These are the masks of the Afikpo, comprising some twelve wooden, one calabash (gourd), and two net mask forms.

"These masks are faces, not half or full heads, or helmets," writes UW anthropology professor Simon Ottenberg. And when human beings don one of these masks, "they are believed to be spirits rather than people. Though most players are individually recognizable by their manner of dancing, walking, singing, and in other ways, the fiction is maintained that they are not really humans at all, but a general form of spirit." footnote 2

As a cultural anthropologist, Ottenberg has written an almost complete ethnography of the Afikpo, who belong to the much larger population of Igbo speakers in the country of Nigeria. He has published four major works on the subject, a product of thirty months' research there over the periods of 1951 to 1953 and 1959 to 1960. Ottenberg's works deal with family and descent, traditional leadership and how it has changed over time, rituals of initiation and the maturation of boys, in addition to the masquerades.

His best-known work is The Masked Rituals of Afikpo: The Context of an African Art,footnote 1 an illustrated volume describing the styles, usages, aesthetics, and cultural contexts of this African society's main sculptural art form. Ottenberg explores how the masks are used in dances and plays, parades and games, foot races and secret society initiations. He documents the most elaborate of the Afikpo masquerades, the okumkpa, translating and interpreting it step-by-step. The volume won a Washington State Library Governor's Award and was associated with an exhibit at the Henry Art Gallery on the UW campus. The book, with its texts of songs and dialogues, and its many colorful photographs of the elegant Afikpo masks, was one of the first detailed studies of masquerades published in the United States.

In recognition of his achievements, Ottenberg was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1992, and he was made an Honorary Chief at Afikpo in the same year.

Ottenberg recently has been curating an exhibition of seven contemporary eastern Nigerian artists for the National Museum of African Art, a museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. The exhibition is scheduled to open in October, 1997. A book about the exhibit, written by Ottenberg and published by the Smithsonian Institution Press, will accompany the show.

  1. S. Ottenberg, The Masked Rituals of Afikpo: The Context of an African Art, UW Press, Seattle, 1975.
  2. "Humorous Masks and Serious Politics among Afikpo Ibo," S. Ottenberg, African Art and Leadership, ed. by D. Fraser and H. M. Cole, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1972, p. 99.

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