Conservation notes: Maiden Spirit mask

Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria. Prior to conservation.
Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria, in 1911. (NWT 390; MAA Z 13689)

[Re:]Entanglements project conservator, Carmen Vida, provides insights into some of the conservation techniques used to clean and consolidate a remarkable Igbo maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in 1911, and how close examination can tell us more about the mask’s biography both before and after it entered the museum.

One of the most visually striking objects that has come to the UCL Conservation Lab in preparation for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is an Igbo maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu-Nri, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911.

The maiden spirit (agbogho mmuo) is one of the most celebrated Igbo masquerade types. Although danced by men, the masquerades – manifestations of ancestral spirits – represent ideals of youthful femininity. The carved, wooden masks typically have fine facial features, with thin, straight noses, small mouths and light complexions, often decorated with uli designs or tattoos. They often have elaborate hair-styles, adorned with crests, coiled plaits and combs. They wear tight-fitting, vibrantly coloured and patterned appliqué costumes, which again evoke uli and other body painting designs. They dance mainly for entertainment, including at the annual Ude Agbogho or ‘Fame of the Maidens’ festival. Thomas collected two examples of the masks in Agukwu-Nri.

Left and centre: Agbogho mmuo (maiden spirit masquerade) as painted by Ben Enwonwu. Right: Photograph of Agbogho mmuo costume by G. I. Jones.
Left and centre: Evocations of the colour and movement of agbogho mmuo in the art of Ben Enwonwu; Right: Maiden spirit masquerade costume photographed by G. I. Jones in Awka, Nigeria in the 1930s.

The mask we have been working with is a particularly fine example. It has a yellow and white face with black tattoos or scarification marks over the eyebrows, down the forehead and on either side of the eyes. Great detail has been paid to the carving of the hairstyle and of a tall, elaborate headdress that comprises a crest, four combs extending upwards and two stands surmounted by birds in between. The crest is made up of a large diamond-shaped section that is flanked by two horns that support two curved sections with upturned bells above. The painted decoration on the mask used red, black, yellow and white pigments. At some point, probably in the mid-20th century, the mask has been secured with copper wires onto a wooden mount.

Northcote Thomas photographs of maiden spirit masquerade (agbogho mmuo), Awka, Nigeria, 1910.
Maiden spirit masquerade figures photographed by Northcote Thomas in Awka in 1910-11, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. (Clockwise from top left: NWT 1965 (RAI 400.17808); NWT 1967 (RAI 400.17810); NWT 1977 (RAI 400.17819); NWT 2279 (RAI 400.15914))

Thomas made a number of photographs of agbogho mmuo dancing at Awka in December 1910 and March 1911, and also photographed the masks he collected in Agukwu-Nri later in 1911. There are no photographs, however, of the masks he collected being performed and we do not know for sure whether they had been used in dances before Thomas acquired them or if he obtained them directly from the artist(s) who made them.

Although Thomas did acquire complete masquerade costumes during his 1909-10 Edo tour, it does not appear that he did so on his 1910-11 Igbo tour. (There is a complete agbogho mmuo costume on display at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, but provenance is unknown.) That there were additional costume elements attached to the mask we are focusing on here is, however, evident from some fibres that remain attached to the rows of holes that run around the edges of the mask, especially in the area of the jaw and chin.

Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria. Noting remains of costume attached.
Fibres attached to the holes around the edges of the mask provide evidence that it was attached to additional costume elements prior to being collected. Note also the museum label attached to the inside of the mask, recording the location in which it was collected and the Igbo name of the mask recorded by Thomas: Isi abogefi.

Unusually, Thomas made quite detailed notes about the mask. He records the name of the type of mask as Isi abogefiIsi meaning ‘head’, while abogefi may be a dialect variation or erroneous rendering of agbogho, meaning ‘girl of marriageable age’. He notes that the carved bird on one side of the head represents a black pigeon (ndò), and that on the other side a parrot. The central crest he records as isi nkpo umu nwayi, a representation of a headdress women wear for dancing. Thomas records the sources of the four pigments: the black (oji) and yellow (èdò) pigments are derived from trees, red (ufie) is from camwood, and white (nzu) from chalk/white clay. He goes on to explain that the mmuo comes out to dance at the feast of Anuoye during the dry season. Anuoye is a goddess of protection in Nri. He writes that the mmuo will only dance for half a day, once a year. He goes on to detail the sacrifices made to her, and how these are later cooked and redistributed by the young men who perform the masquerade.

Conserving Isi abogefi

In preparation for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition, the mask required conservation because there were issues with its stability and appearance that needed to be addressed. The initial condition assessment of the mask started telling us part of the history of this object. But it was by contrasting the object’s present condition with that recorded in earlier photographs that the tale of the object’s journey could start being pieced together.

Left: Photograph of maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri at the time of acquisition in 1911; Right: Photograph of the mask published in G. I. Jones' Art of Southeast Nigeria.
Left: Photograph of the Isi abogefi maiden spirit mask taken by Northcote Thomas at the time of acquisition in Agukwu Nri (probably against Thomas’s canvas tent). Note the coiled raffia bundle next to the mask, which was possibly placed as a cushion between the mask and the wearer’s head. The mask is propped up on a box file, no doubt used by Thomas for keeping his fieldnotes in order! (NWT 2934b; RAI N.76430). Right: Photograph of the same mask published in G. I. Jones’ The Art of Eastern Nigeria in 1984.

Comparison with the earliest photograph, that taken by Thomas himself in 1911, allowed us to establish that the mask had already been repaired before it had been collected (see our earlier blog post about this) and that Thomas seems to have acquired it without the costume element of which we found traces. Put together, these two facts lend more weight to the likelihood that the mask had seen previous use rather than being especially made for Thomas. Indeed, in the 1911 photograph one can also see a coiled raffia bundle, which was probably placed on top of the wearer’s head as a cushionbefore putting the mask on.

A later photograph of the mask taken for the anthropologist G. I. Jones, for his book The Art of Eastern Nigeria, published in 1984, shows the mask free of some of the damage now visible. Specifically, the losses to the lip, and the breaks and subsequent repairs now visible on the jaw and on the four combs are not apparent in the photograph for Jones’ book. This gives us an approximate point in time after which this particular damage and the subsequent repairs must have happened: post 1984.

Repairs are particularly clear on the back of the front left comb and on the front and back right combs too, because the adhesive used has aged and darkened. The nature of the breaks and the similarity in the appearance of the adhesive used in the repairs suggests at least one episode of catastrophic damage – a fall, perhaps? – rather than gradual deterioration. Having worked on this object I have also experiential knowledge of its instability as the top heavy crest makes it prone to tipping forward.

Left and centre: Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria, noting damage to mask.
Left: Details of damage on the front of the mask that were not apparent in the c.1984 photograph in G. I. Jones’ book. Right: Detail of the back of the left front comb where the break and aged adhesive can be clearly seen.

All of the above has consequences for any future conservation of this mask: as the post-1984 repairs are relatively recent and carried out in the context of the museum, it may be acceptable to remove the darkened adhesive and redo the repairs should this become necessary. We would not consider doing this with the more historical repairs, which may instead be conserved themselves as a vital part of the object’s biography. Similarly, being able to date the more recent repairs to after 1984 may help identifying the adhesive used and the best approach to its removal. The option of redoing the recent repairs was not considered at this stage because the information only became clearer as we worked on the mask, but also because at present the repairs, although disfiguring, are stable and removing them now may cause unnecessary damage.

The hands-on conservation of the object started with cleaning. As with other objects collected by Northcote Thomas that we have treated as part of [Re:]Entanglements, there was much surface dirt, with dust and dirt accumulated in the crevices, recesses, and carved details of the mask. Some of this dirt was relatively easy to remove using standard museum vacuum techniques. However, on organic porous materials such as wood, if dust is left for a long time it can end up becoming engrained into the pores and harder to remove, giving the object a grey and dull look. This was definitely the case with the maiden spirit mask. So, first the loose dirt and dust were removed with a museum vacuum and soft brushes. This did not prove sufficient to remove the dull grey film of engrained dirt, and after testing the steadfastness of the various pigments, the mask was carefully swabbed with a solvent to help lift the dirt off its surface. This was quite successful and some of the original sheen of the surface was returned to the object.

The treatment then focused on the structural issues that were placing the mask at risk. There were cracks at the base of both the horns that attach the crest to the head. The crack to the front horn, in particular, seemed to go most of the way through and moved when handled. Both cracks were consolidated and secured by injecting a protein-based adhesive into the cracks with a syringe and holding them under tension in the correct position until the adhesive cured.

Video showing conservation cleaning and consolidation processes on the maiden spirit mask.

The stand which holds the bird on the right was very loose and unstable, and the historical repair there, which we discussed in an earlier blog post, no longer secured it. The iron metal sheet of the earlier repair also had a rusted surface and small losses to the bottom edge, as well as a nail missing, and even though the corrosion was not active, it was unsightly and was therefore cleaned off slightly. Flexible fills using Japanese tissue paper and a conservation grade adhesive were made under the metal sheet to pack the joint and secure the stand, and then tinted to match the colour of the mask in that area so that they would be largely invisible.

The surviving lip fragment was re-adhered and the old wooden mount has been temporarily raised with a layer of Plastazote foam, so as to lift the jaw off the ground and relieve the pressure exerted by the weight of the object on the jaw, which has resulted in cracks in the wood. A new mount will be made for the exhibition display to replace the existing one, which will definitively solve this problem.

Damage to the upturned bells on the top of the crest was also examined: two of the bells – the third and the fifth from the front – display losses. These do not present any risk to the stability of the object and therefore nothing was done other than cleaning. But a close examination of them tells of at least two episodes of damage. On the third bell some of the break edges are darkened and dirty, but there is also a cleaner and therefore relatively more recent break edge.  Reference to the photographs showed that some of the damage to the third bell, corresponding to the darkened break edge, was there at the time Thomas photographed the object in 1911 and therefore predates acquisition. Further losses have evidently happened between the time Thomas photographed the mask and the date it was photographed for Jones’ book. The fifth bell also has a small loss to the rim, with a dark break edge suggesting an old break possibly contemporary with the earlier loss on the third bell, though the photographs do not show this area and so nothing can be said with certainty.

Left and centre: Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria, noting damage to mask.
Details of the damage to the inverted bell decoration along the top of the mask’s crest. Highlighted in red are the darkened break edges, suggesting historical damage that is also evident in Thomas’ 1911 photograph; highlighted in yellow are more recent, lighter break edges.

Throughout the conservation process, the mask gradually revealed more and more of its history, allowing us to speculate more confidently on how Thomas may have acquired it, guiding our conservation decisions, and helping us trace and even roughly date some of the damage episodes it has suffered after entering the collection. But it does not end here. As a result of this conservation treatment there is one more tale the object has started to tell us, and that could open another venue of information into this object’s past.

Left and centre: Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria, after conservation. Right: strikingly similar mask in collection of Art Institute, Chicago.
Left and centre: The maiden spirit mask after the conservation treatment has been completed. Right: A maiden spirit mask now in the collection of the Art Institute Chicago, which bears a striking resemblance to that collected by Thomas despite its ‘encrusted patina’.

During the research carried out on Igbo maiden spirit masks as background for the conservation treatment, a very similar mask was located in the Art Institute in Chicago (Accession No. 1994.315). The mask in Chicago is described in Herbert Cole and Chike Aniakor’s book Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos as being covered in an ‘encrusted patina’ and its polychrome surface may have been lost, but it is nevertheless recognisably similar and uses the same motifs as the mask collected by Thomas, suggesting that it was made by the same artist(s). It also appears to have the remains of the costume element. This discovery may open the door to further research into the provenance and origins of the mask collected by Thomas and the role it may have played in Igbo societies before it entered the collection, and is a clear example of the affordances conservation work offers within and outside its own remit.


As noted above, Thomas collected two maiden spirit masks in Agukwu Nri in 1911. The second one was recently included in a virtual ‘Museum Remix: Unheard‘ trail across the University of Cambridge’s museums. Senior Curator, Mark Elliot discusses some of the untold/unheard stories associated with the mask in this video.

Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria.
The second maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri in 1911. (NWT 391; MAA Z 13690)

Further reading

  • H. Cole and C. Aniakor (1984) Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California.
  • B. Hufbauer and B. Reed (2003) ‘Adamma: A Contemporary Igbo Maiden Spirit’, African Arts 36(3): 56-65 + 94-95.
  • G. I. Jones (1984) The Art of Eastern Nigeria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • N. W. Thomas (1913) Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking peoples of Nigeria, Part I. London: Harrison & Co.

Ibillo’s Ugolo mask, Guest blog by Jean Borgatti and Wendy Emmanuel Adejumoh

Ofuno mask, collected by Northcote Thomas in Ibillo, Nigeria in 1910. University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Z 26531.
Figure 1: Mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Ibillo, Nigeria, in 1910. University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Z 26531.

Northcote Whitridge Thomas collected this helmet mask from Ibillo in 1910, towards the end of his first tour in Edo-speaking areas of Nigeria (Figure 1). Ibillo, one of the Okpameri groups in what is now Akoko-Edo Local Government Area of Edo State (then part of what was called Kukuruku), continues to use this type of mask in its age-grade festival called Ikpishionua, held approximately every 7 years. At the Ikpishionua festival the mask appears under the name of Ugolo, while during smaller annual festivals it appears as Uvbono.

Jean Borgatti photograph of Northcote Thomas Ibillo mask, 1969.
Figure 2: The mask as photographed by Jean Borgatti in 1969.

I photographed this mask at University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 1969 (Figure 2) as part of a feasibility study for field research among the peoples of Edo North that I began in 1971 – though Ibillo did not figure in that early field research. When I returned to Nigeria in 2015, over forty years later, I did begin to do additional research in Akoko-Edo, and visited Ibillo at that time. When I showed my photograph to an elder and group of age-grade members, they cautioned me not to show it to women since it was in the ‘production’ stage: that is, without costume and without the line of feathers inserted into the sagittal crest, as can be seen in a video made by Emmanuel Concept Video Productions of the Ikpishionua festival in 2015 (Figure 3). I was able to obtain screenshots of various masquerades from this video and Professor P. D. Ogunnubi of Odo Quarter and age group representatives identified these for me, giving a brief explanation for each one. Subsequently, an art history student from the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Benin and an Ibillo indigene, Wendy Emmanuel Adejumo, wrote his honors thesis on the masquerades (Adejumo 2017). This blog entry draws on our shared findings.

Ibillo masquerade from Ibillo People Facebook page and Emmanuel Productions video..
Figure 3: Ugolo masquerade at the Ikpishionua festival, Ibillo, in 2015. (Left: Ibillo People Facebook page; Left: Emmanuel Concept Video Productions)

The term ‘Okpameri’ dates from the mid-19th century and was the result of a number of neighboring villages solidifying their coalition against Nupe slave-raiding (Orifah n.d.). Okpameri has also come to mean ‘We are one’, though it was not a term used much before the middle of the 20th century. Okpameri includes 23 towns and villages: Aiyegunle (Osi), Anyaoza, Bekuma, Dangbala, Ekor, Ekpe, Ekpesa, Ibillo, Ikiran-Ile, Ikiran-Oke, Imoga, Makeke, Lampese, Ogugu, Ogbe, Ojah (Ozah), Ojirami-Afekunu, Ojirami-Dam, Ojirami-Kpetesshi, Somorika, Ugboshi-Afe, Ugboshi-Ele and Unumu (Orifa n.d.). Ibillo’s population as recorded in the 2006 census was 24,303 (Ojeifo & Esaigbe 2012). It consists of four kinship-based quarters. Listed in order of seniority, these are: Eku/Odo, Uwhosi/Illese, Ekuya and Ekuma/Uzeh. Ibillo’s headship rotates among these quarters. All celebrate an age grade festival approximately every 7 years, and in the past they all celebrated on the same date. In recent times, however, the quarters have staggered their celebrations to maximize local attendance. There is some controversy over this since some believe Ibillo could make ‘tourist capital’ from the festival if they celebrated together.

Though held annually to purify the community and foster community identity, the festival is celebrated in its most elaborate form approximately every 7 years when a new male ‘age group’ is formed. In this way, it resembles the situation described in a previous blog on Otuo, a community on the border of Akoko-Edo and Owan Local Government Areas, which Northcote Thomas also visited and where he photographed masquerades associated with an age-group festival called ‘Eliminia’.

Although Professor Ogunnubi identified the mask collected by Thomas as ‘Ugolo’, Northcote Thomas recorded its name as ‘Ofuno’. This appears to be a misspelling. The proper spelling should be ‘Ubvono’ or ‘Uvono’. Ubvono is only celebrated in the interval between Ikpishionua festivals, suggesting that Thomas was not in Ibillo during a year when an age company was formed. Local respondents suggested that the mask was likely to have been made in Ekuya quarter, a community known for the thick weaving of the Ugolo mask form. The Ugolo, Ubvono and other woven masks are essentially the same, differentiated only by their context of use and the ‘finishing’ or decoration of the mask. For Uvbono, the Ugolo mask would have its feathers fixed differently from when it performs during Ikpishionua, and it does not perform fully in Ubvono because Uvbono is not a ‘serious’ festival, but more entertainment oriented. A nine-day festival, its function is to keep the community busy and engaged.

A description of the mask may be found in Thomas’s typed-up fieldnotes (Figure 4). He writes that, in Ibillo, ‘headdresses are woven of cord and made upon long pieces of wood carved to the shape of each man’s head. There is a stiff crest of cord surmounted by nuts of some sort. Eye holes are surrounded with cowries. There is a wooden nose; the mouth is represented by a ring of cowries without an aperture and from it hangs a double cord with a tassel at the end. The lower part of the mask is coloured with cam wood; the upper part is black; the intervening portion is white’. (Note that the tasselled cords extending from the mouth have become detached and lost, though one can see evidence of where it was attached.)

Northcote Thomas Edo manuscript notes on Ibillo mask
Figure 4: Except from Northcote Thomas’s typed-up fieldnotes describing the mask.

Many of the characteristics Thomas described can still be found in the Ugolo masks that are made in Ibillo today. The colours include red around eyes and mouth as well as on the beak-like nose. They have sagittal crests dramatized by the addition of feathers. The feathers have not been identified, but it is possible that they include the tail feathers of a rooster since the head with its crest and beak represents the head of a cock. The body covering is made of the pith from the bark of any healthy tree with a thick bark. Once the bark is removed, it is left to soften in the river for some days to allow for easy separation of the inner part or pith from the bark. The pith is further washed to increase its pliability. The resulting material, emue, is used to create the fronds covering the masqueraders’ bodies as well as the fiber employed in weaving the masks themselves.

Ibillo masquerade from Emmanuel Concept Video Productions.
Figure 5: Ugolo masquerade wearing a cloth in the initial stages of the Ikpishionua festival. Emmanuel Concept Video Productions.

During the initial outing of the masquerades during the Ikpishionua festival, all the masqueraders wear cloth covers over the costume of fronds as illustrated in another screenshot from the Emmanuel Concept video (Figure 5). The cloth covers are only worn during the full Ikpishionua age-grade festival, and not during the minor annual festivals in intervening years. The cloth covers are also seen as a symbolic definition of women’s involvement in the festival when they have license to dance alongside masquerades without committing offense, contrary to other festival celebrations. Women and family members often wear the same cloth to indicate their relationship to a particular masquerader who may be one of the newly initiated or someone being promoted to another level – tacitly identifying him. As the festival progresses, the masqueraders abandon their cloth shawls, revealing their masks more clearly for the audience to appreciate.

Northcote Thomas photograph of Ibillo mask. NWT 1733, RAI 400.17686.
Figure 6: Northcote Thomas’s photograph of a similar mask ‘at rest’ in the ukpala, Ibillo,1910. The tasselled cords extending from the mouth mentioned in Thomas’s description of the mask can be seen here. NWT 1733. Royal Anthropological Institute 400.17686.

In 1910, Thomas also photographed a similar mask at rest in the masquerade stockade (ukpala or uyala) (Figure 6) where participants make their masks and prepare for the celebration of the festival in relative privacy, away from the gaze of women. This is also a place where those wearing masks can rehearse their dancing before coming out to display. The ukpala walls stand about 15 feet high and the interior space is as large as possible in the area allocated for its construction. It is a temporary structure with walls made of dry palm branches today as in the past.

Ibillo masquerade from Ibillo People Facebook page.
Minor masquerades at the Ikpishionua festival, Ibillo. (Ibillo People Facebook page)

During Ikpishionua, Ugolo represents the elders and chiefly ancestors of Ibillo. It plays the metal gong, elo, as it sings historical songs, eulogies and epics (welaku), communicating with the people in specific areas or quarters it visits, speaking in parables. It is one of the four main mask types seen today, and probably the oldest type, the others being Umueku, Ulele and Obibia. There are numerous minor masquerades too that use the basic knit or woven form displayed by Ugolo, often without the crest. These minor masks are created by the incoming age group, and they sport different caps or headdresses created to amuse the community, inspiring jokes and nicknames. Such names refer especially to the addition of the objects to the top of the mask, such as a pouch of ‘pure water’ (ame) for the ‘hawker of water’ and ‘water as life’ masks. The label ‘fish cold-room’ (ehwena) suggests the seller of meat or food, a female hair-do (zo ehwo eh bio za) depicts young females and their fashion, a woman’s head-tie or igaleh suggests elderly women, mirrors (ugbegbe) represent eyes in the round as well as reflection, interpretation, or the foreshadowing of possibility. Costuming and accessories are meant to encourage women to make satirical comments on the masquerades. The festival is, after all, an ‘occasion for people of different ages – men, women and children – to work together creatively, making masks, costumes, musical instruments, engaging in body painting, and performing together as a community’ (Adejumoh 2017).

References

The Eliminya Festival masquerades ‘in detail’, Guest blog by Jean Borgatti

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
Left: Otuoyema Group masquerades of the type referred to as Osa. Photographed by Jean Borgatti at the final performance of Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, 1973. The performance was held in honor of Samuel Ogbemudia who served as military governor of what was then Midwest State. Right: Otuoyema Group masquerade photographed by Northcote Thomas (NWT 839) in Emafu (Imafun) Quarter, Otuo, in 1909.

In an earlier guest blog, the art historian Professor Jean Borgatti described her first encounter with the photographic archives of Northcote Thomas in the early 1970s. She recounted how she was able to track the changes and continuities in the masquerade traditions associated with the Eliminya Festival in Otuo from Thomas’s photographs from 1909 to her own documentation of the festival in 1973, 2003 and 2016. In this second guest blog, Jean discusses the Eliminya masquerade costumes themselves in greater detail.

Otuo community life is based on the principle of age-grading. Community member and teacher, I. Igbafe, described a series of 13 grades through which passed age sets formed every 5 years. (The anthropologist, R. E. Bradbury, described 11 such grades). Each grade bears a name and has specific tasks associated with it as well as specific ritual duties and roles. Masquerade and dance regalia characterize each group through the Otuoyema, or first title grade – the group moving upward in the Eliminya/Igugu festival. Igugu is a cognate with the Yoruba language term Egungun that refers to ancestors and ancestral masquerades, and was the name used by my informants in 1972-3. (Yoruba is spoken widely in Otuo as well as throughout northwest Edo communities.) Eliminya is cognate with the Edo term Erivi meaning the world of the dead and unborn, residence of the gods, the ancestors and masquerade-dancers (Melzian 1937: 55-6).

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
Osa type masquerades photographed by Jean Borgatti at the Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, in 1973.

In Otuo, men between the ages of 45 and 50 both sponsor and wear masks and headdresses in festivals held to mark their entry into the group of community leaders. The sponsoring age group wears only two of the seven or eight mask types that appear, the others being worn by the age company above them. These masks are used for a season lasting 5-7 years and are thereafter destroyed. Consequently, they are almost unknown to the outside world. The masks incorporate a vast array of images that refer to ideas of power and leadership: leopards, equestrian figures, colonial officers, the Nigerian Army, heraldic angels and airplanes. The names of the masquerades belong to the esoteric lore associated with each age company, although the masks I refer to as ‘bowler hats’ are called by the popular names ‘umbrella’ or ‘helmet’ – names that suggest kingship or the military but in either case, authority.  These and the ‘whipping masquerades’ are those costumes carried by the sponsoring age company [see illustrations in Jean’s previous guest blog]. The symbolism and significance of these masks also belongs to the esoteric lore of the association. However it is said that while the activity of whipping masquerades purifies the community, the ‘umbrella’ masquerades are enjoyed for their dancing.

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
From left to right: Obagege, crested, and Ogbigbia type masquerades photographed by Jean Borgatti at the Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, in 1973.

All the masquerade headdresses are worn with a costume of woven raffia covering the performer’s head and torso, following the shape of his body. A fringed panel falls over his chest and shoulders. The section covering his head is embellished with a nose-like tassel. The lower hem of the costume terminates in long strands of fiber. The performer’s arms and legs, painted with linear designs, are partially visible through the fringe as is his cloth applique apron. (Today, shorts are worn rather than the backless apron worn in the past that left the buttocks exposed and visible as the fringe swayed.) Each headdress appears to give a distinctive name to the masquerade. In the parade of masked figures I witnessed in 1973, where the photographs that accompany this blog were taken, costumes worn with a towering feather headdress (Obagege), a central crest of straws bound together, and small wooden caps resembling women’s plaited hairstyles (Ogbigbia) precede the whipping masquerades (Olu), a type far outnumbering the rest since each member of the age group moving upward must wear this one. The wooden capped masqueraders are said to be for maintaining order during the public displays.

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
Left: Olu, ‘whipping masquerades’, whose role is to disperse malevolent spirits; right: Ogbogbomudu masquerade types, which perform humorous skits in the playing ground. Photographed by Jean Borgatti at the Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, in 1973.

The ‘whipping masqueraders’ perform to disperse malevolent spiritual forces, each cracking  his whip in an attempt to achieve a sound approximating a gunshot. (Those who succeeded were greeted with a resounding cheer.) These are followed by the ‘umbrellas’ (Ugbokpa) and the wooden helmet masks (Ogbogbomudu). These characters are said to be linked to the rains, and perform humorous skits in the playing ground. The most elaborate masks and headdresses featuring figural superstructures (Osa) come a stately last.

Eliminya Festival masquerade photographed by Northcote Thomas in Otuo in 1909
Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the Osa masquerade type in Otuo in 1909. NWT 837.

That each company moving upwards in the system must provide a new set of headdresses provides for the incorporation of new motifs into the compositions and new materials into their construction. Northcote Thomas photographed only three of these masquerade types in Otuo: the whipping masquerade (Olu) and the umbrella masquerade (Ugbokpa), whose later 20th- and 21st-century counterparts are dramatically similar, and one towering Osa masquerade that appears to have a canework superstructure into which are pegged multiple small figures. The final two types of masquerade I witnessed in the 1973 parade consisted of a helmet, usually janus-faced, surmounted by a superstructure containing multiple figures or simply a multi-tiered headdress with carved figures and animals attached to the basic structure, evoking the complex example photographed by Thomas.

My research in Nigeria was carried out between 1971 and 1974 under the auspices of the Federal Department of Antiquities and was partially funded by the following: UCLA Museum of Cultural History-Ralph Altman Fund and NDEA Title VI fellowships via the African Studies Center, UCLA.  Research in 2002-04 and in 2014-16 was carried out under a Fulbright-Hays teaching and research fellowship at the University of Benin in Benin City. I would like to thank the people of Otuo for sharing information and experiences with me, particularly Chief Erukpe Omokhudu, Mr Isaac Adokhai Afekhai, and Teacher Igbafe of Otuo for their personal assistance in 1973. In 2003, his Highness, Julius Elugbe, the Ovie of Otuo, was instrumental in facilitating my documentation of the festival. In 2016, his nephew, Professor Ben Elugbe, was my host during the masquerades’ morning walk-about.

Further reading:

Borgatti, J. M. 1982. ‘Age Grades, Masquerades, and Leadership among the Northern Edo’, African Arts 16 (1): 36-51+96.
Bradbury, R. 1957. The Benin Kingdom and the Edo-Speaking Peoples of Southwestern Nigeria. London: International African Institute.
Igbafe, I. n.d. ‘Age Group Organization in Otuo’. Unpublished manuscript given to the author, and subsequently deposited in the Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC.
Melzian, H. 1937. A Concise History of the Bini Language of Southern Nigeria. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

The Eliminya Festival, Otuo, Guest blog by Jean Borgatti

Northcote Thomas's photograph of Eliminya masquerade costumes, Otuo as published in Peoples of All Nations in 1922.
N. W. Thomas’s photograph of Eliminya masquerade costumes as published and captioned in Peoples of All Nations in 1922, and The Secret Museum of Mankind in 1935.

This is the first in an occasional series of guest blogs for the [Re:]Entanglements project by Jean Borgatti. Jean received a PhD in Art History from UCLA in 1976. She has carried out research in Nigeria among Edo-speaking people north of Benin for over 40 years, beginning in the 1970s, returning in 2003-04 and 2014-16 on Fulbright-Hays teaching/research fellowships with a base at the University of Benin, Benin City. She has carried out research among a number of small ethnic groups with which N. W. Thomas interacted, notably the Okpella (Ukpila), Ekperi, Weppa-Wano, Avianwu, Uzairue, Otuo (Otwa), Ogbe and Ibillo, publishing on the Okpella, Ekperi and Otuo masquerade complexes in the journal African Arts. In this blog, Jean recalls her encounter with a photograph by Northcote Thomas reproduced uncredited in a 1935 publication entitled The Secret Museum of Mankind, and how this led to her own documentation of the same remarkable Otuo masquerade in the early 1970s.

‘Awe-inspiring ceremonial attends the most important event in tribal life — the admission of the young men into the full rights of manhood. In South Kukuruku the initiation is performed once every three years by members of the Eliminya Society. They wear uncanny, somewhat insect-like masks with pendant tassels — always jealously concealed from the uninitiated and from women — a kind of tunic of loose cords, and crested helmets of palm-fibre.’

So reads the caption to this heavily modified photograph, published in 1935 in The Secret Museum of Mankind – a work described on the website at which it has been digitized, as a ‘mystery book’, with ‘no author or credits, no copyright, no date, no page numbers, [and] no index’ (http://ian.macky.net/secretmuseum/). Advertised as ‘World’s Greatest Collection of Strange & Secret Photographs’, its accompanying texts ‘read like the patter of a carnival sideshow barker’, racist and sensational (ibid.).

Northcote Thomas's photograph of the Eliminya masquerade costumes, Otuo, July 1909. NWT 840. RAI 400.19717.
N. W. Thomas’s original photograph of the Eliminya masquerade costumes, taken in Otuo in July 1909 (NWT 840). Scanned from glass plate negative in the Royal Anthropological Institute’s collections (RAI 400.19717).

Like other images in the book, the photograph is not attributed in The Secret Museum of Mankind. We know, however, that it is one of Northcote W. Thomas’s photographs taken in Otuo (Otwa) in July 1909, in the north of Nigeria’s Edo State, of a festival he records as being called ‘Eliminya’. The photograph and the caption had previously been published in 1922 in a serialized illustrated encyclopaedia entitled Peoples of All Nations edited by J. A. Hammerton. N. W. Thomas provided numerous photographs to sections on the ‘British Empire in Africa’ and contributed an article on the ‘manners and customs of its native races’.

Both Peoples of All Nations and The Secret Museum of Mankind were published at a time described by Annie Coombes in her book Reinventing Africa (1997) when Africa was a concept as much as a geographical destination. She notes that the Africa that existed in the popular European imagination was an ideological space, at once savage, threatening, exotic and productive. These ideas are reinforced by the images and captions published in popular works such as Peoples of All Nations and The Secret Museum of Mankind.

At this time two particular cultural arenas effectively disseminated knowledge of Africa to the European public: the displayed classification of material culture from Africa in ethnographic collections in local and national museums (such as the collections made by Northcote Thomas and now in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), and the spectacle of Africans themselves in a variety of large-scale national and regional exhibitions. The popular illustrated press and serialized encyclopaedias such as Peoples of All Nations were also part  of this dissemination, and, as mentioned above, this material was later republished in works such as The Secret Museum of Mankind.

I recognized the photographs when I obtained a second-hand copy of The Secret Museum of Mankind in the early 1970s, having earlier seen copies of some of Northcote Thomas’s photographs. These had been made from the album lodged in the National Museum in Lagos and provided by a colleague, since at that time I was considering whether to make an art historical field study in the Edo North area (known in Thomas’s time as Kukuruku). I spent some time in the UK at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where I was given access to Thomas’s collection – although it was not well catalogued, stored or described at that time. I pursued a field enquiry in Edo North between 1971 and 1974, witnessing the festival described by Thomas as Eliminya in Otuo (Otwa) in 1973. (When I visited the festival was called Igugu.) Although this was not my primary research, after witnessing this extraordinary masquerade spectacle I did some follow up work and wrote an article on Otuo’s age grade masquerades, published in African Arts (Borgatti 1982).

Jean Borgatti's photograph of Eliminya or Igugu festival, 1973.
Otuoyema group masqueraders in fibre costumes, Otuo, 1973. Photograph by Jean Borgatti.

I had been fortunate in 1973 to document a particularly important group of men who served as sponsors for the masquerades as they moved into what was described as the lower levels of leadership. They were men between 40 and 50 years of age in the Otuoyema age group. Otuo requires that its citizens participate in the age-grade system, even if that participation is by proxy, moving up systematically through the ranks. If a man does not participate, he may never become a chief in Otuo – no matter how successful he has been in the outside world. This seems to have provided considerable incentive for people to support the age-grade institution.

Jean Borgatti's photograph of Eliminya or Igugu festival, 1973.
Otuoyema group masqueraders wearing headdresses of raffia velvet, Otuo, 1973. Photograph by Jean Borgatti.

I returned to Nigeria in 2002-03 on a Fulbright-Hays Research and Teaching fellowship that enabled me to follow up on the Otuo (and neigbouring Ikao) festival. During the festival, I was the guest of the paramount chief of Otuo, Ovie Julius Elugbe, who had been one of the initiates in 1973. 2003 was a year during which age sets moved up, so new masquerades had to be made and the displays were elaborate, though not as elaborate as in 1973.

Jean Borgatti, Eliminya Festival, Otuo, 2003
Large masquerade (Ugbokpa), sometimes called ‘umbrella’, followed by a smaller, flat ‘whipping’ masquerade (Olu) moving from playing ground to playing ground at the beginning of the festival. Igugu/Eliminya Festival, Imakhize Village, Otuo, January 12, 2003.

 

Jean Borgatti, Eliminya Festival, Otuo, 2003
Ugbokpa and Olu masquerades in Uzawa Village playing ground with age company member. Igugu/Eliminya Festival, Otuo, January 12, 2003.

Subsequently, in 2016, I photographed the festival again, this time in the company of the linguist, Professor Ben Elugbe, the late Ovie’s nephew. 2016 was not a year for age-grade formation, since this occurs only once every five years when the new masquerades are introduced (in contrast to Thomas’s assertion that it occurred every three years). In between times, the fibre masquerades, if not those with carved wooden headdresses, come out annually in their respective quarters, going to each village square or playing ground to dance. According to Professor Elugbe, there are eighteen distinct playing grounds today. If no one is there to beat the drums for the masquerades when the arrive, they may just walk around and go on to the next playing ground.

Jean Borgatti, Eliminya Festival, Otuo, 2016
Large masquerade (Ugbokpa) arriving at playing ground in Oluma Village. Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, January 1, 2016.

Jean Borgatti, Eliminya Festival, Otuo, 2016
Small masquerade (Olu) performing to the beat of the drum (odoka) in Oluma Village. Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, January 1, 2016.

Even though Thomas’s photographs provide an important visual baseline for Otuo’s cultural practices, much work remains to be done in these northern Edo communities that are struggling to conserve their remarkable heritage.