Cap mask portraying a woman - ROM2008_10416_22


Cap mask portraying a woman

Maker: Asikpo Edet Okon (d. 1925)
Medium:Carved wood, antelope skin, pigment, bone
Geography: Calabar, Cross River Region, Nigeria
Date: late 19th-early 20th century
Height 73.7 cm
Object number: 935.10.1
On view
Gallery Location:Shreyas and Mina Ajmera Gallery of Africa, the Americas and Asia-Pacific
DescriptionThis stunning sculptural headdress was acquired in the Calabar area of South Eastern Nigeria and donated to the ROM by the widow of Reverend W.G. Adams in 1935. The piece was purchased six years earlier by her daughter who was stationed in Calabar, probably as a missionary. We know little about the circumstances of the acquisition of this piece, which old catalogue records identify as a “ju ju,” a general, and somewhat disparaging, term used to describe African religious practices and traditions. According to Keith Nicklin, this mask may have been created by Asikpo Edet Okon, who worked in the Efut town of Ibonda, Creek Town and died in the 1920s. Many of the headdresses produced in this workshop were made for ikem, an entertainment association very common in the region. However in the absence of more specific field data it is hard to clearly identify the original function and ownership of this piece. The headpiece is in fact just one element of Cross River masked performances. These types of masks were traded extensively in the region or copied by various ethnic groups and dance societies, who would absorb this sculptural element into their specific performance and interpret it accordingly. Skin covered “horned” headdresses were produced in the Cross River region at least until the 1970s . Masks were carved in wood, covered with soft untanned antelope skin that had been soaked and could be stretched to cover - without hiding - the details of the carving and then painted with natural pigments and finished with bone and metal detail inserts. The headdress in the ROM’s collection represents a young woman (moninkim). The elaborate face painting and “horned” coiffure recall the typical appearance of maidens being reintroduced in the community after the period of initiation and seclusion that marked their passage from childhood to marriageable womanhood. The gaps between the teeth, made of bone, evoke the filing of teeth that was once a common aesthetic practice in the Cross River region. While this mask certainly represents a beautiful woman, we do not know if it was danced by a male or a female performer. In Africa, it is not uncommon for men to embody female masquerades. However, among the Ejagham and neighboring peoples, researchers have documented a longstanding tradition of masquerade performances danced by women. Based on a number of contemporary comparisons we could imagine that this splendid mask could have been owned and performed by one of the women’s associations of the region.
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