Nigeria and Cameroon
|The important art forms of the Ejagham people are connected with the institution of the Ntoon and with the men's and women 's associations. The
best known of these art forms are the large, skin-covered headdresses (crest masks), which may have one, two or even three faces, and the
smaller headpieces, which may represent a head or an entire figure.These exceptional headdresses are owned by associations whose members
are men or women of the same generation but membership is often further restricted to those who have performed certain feats or are proficient in
particular skills. In the past, for example, there were associations of hunters and of men who had killed leopards. The masks, which bear the same
name as the society that owns them, are worn during funerals, initiations and other events. Some are startlingly naturalistic and may be portraits of
known individuals; others are highly stylized.
There are two principal types of masks: helmet masks that cover the wearer's head entirely and crest masks, often referred to as headdresses,
which are attached to basketry caps worn on the top of the head. Both types were made by an artist who carved the form from a single piece of
wood and covered it with soft, untanned antelope skin that had been soaked in water for several days. He stretched and tacked the skin into place
until it dried and stiffened. Eyes, scarifications, and hair were often carved separately and pegged into the finished piece. Before being worn, the
headdress was painted or colored, then adorned with metal pieces, wooden pegs, real hair, porcupine quills, feathers, or feathered rods stuck into
holes at the top.
The most distinctive of these elaborate sculptures are the realistic female headdress topped with curled "horns" representing elegant hairstyles.
They would have been secured on the wearer's head by a string under the chin, with the body covered entirely by a long gown. These might have
been worn by a woman in the context of an Ejagham women's society called Ekpa, which was responsible for the education of the girls in
preparation for marriage. The headdress could represent a girl that evokes ideal female beauty and is ready for marriage. The depicted hairstyle
was worn during the coming-out ceremony following the girls' seclusion.
|Museum Ekoi headdress below
|A photo of an Ekoi headdress in situ
|An example of an Ekoi headdress in the collection of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art in NY
|An example of an Ekoi animal headdress in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY
Nigeria and Cameroon
In the Cross River region in southeast Nigeria, and over into Cameroon, several ethnicities are found and among them the Ejaghem. The oldest Cross
River secret society may be the all-male Ngbe society of the Ejagham people. In their language ngbe means “leopard.” The cult of the leopard had a
unifying effect on the scattered communities of the Cross River. Commercial, ritual, and social exchanges took place because of it, thus circumventing
the drawbacks involved with a non-centralized regime and political institutions that often did not extend beyond the framework of the village.
With the exception of forest cleaning, Ejagham farm labor traditionally was done by women. The men were free to concentrate on hunting and the arts of
war. It also meant that men had leisure for the elaboration of art. They combined a love of physical combat and physical self-realization in hunting with a
love of artistic fulfillment. Both women and men wove raffia cloth on upright looms; both women and men devoted loving care to the elaboration of
coiffure, body paint, and dress.
The Ekoi-speaking peoples (Anyang, Boki, Ejagham, Keaka, and Yako) are best known for their large, skin-covered masks, which may have one, two or
even three faces, and for their smaller headpieces, which represent a head or an entire figure. The heads and skin-covered helmet-masks are unique
in Africa. Earlier skins of slaves, later skins of antelopes, were used. The elaborate trading network along the river formerly involved the selling of rights
to Ngbe and other associations, including the right to perform their various masquerades. The group selling the rights would perform the masquerade in
the village of the buyer group, then return home, leaving their masks and costumes behind. The river trade thus helped to spread related art events
and art objects among diverse people over a broad area, though changes in both form and meaning took place as local copies of masks and costumes
were made. Masks of secret societies appear in performances by accomplished dancers at funerals, initiations of new members, agricultural and other
events. Two types of masks dominate: helmet masks and crest masks. The helmet mask covers the entire head of the wearer reaching to the shoulders.
When the mask is made fresh animal skin is stretched and tacked over the soft wood from which it is carved. After the skin dried, it was stained with
pigments made from leaves and bark. Crest masks do not cover the head but rather sit on top of it. They are attached to the basketry cap, which is held
on the wearer’s head. The headpieces and masks often have metal teeth, inlaid eyes, and frequently pegs to represent hair, which, alternatively, may
be carved in elaborate coils. Feathers, quills, and other objects would have ornamented the mask in performance. Human hair went into the hairdo. It is
presumed that all masks represented ancestors. In addition to masks that represent human heads, there are also those that represent skulls and
animals. All of these animal masks and grotesque masks are seen as fierce and frightening. The skin covering of a mask served as a magical agent to
invoke ancestral spirits, thus eroding the barrier between living and dead participants in communal rituals.
In the northern Ejagham area, around Ikom, are found large stones, akwanshi, from one to six feet high, carved in low relief to represent human figures.
They are thought to be no earlier than the 16th century.