Igbo mask - Agbogho Mmwo


Every Igbo town differs in terms of its range of festivals and types of masks, and oftentimes the spiritual and stylistic forms intermingle between regions,
making it difficult to trace this mask to one particular location. However, masking traditions throughout the various Igbo regions share underlying themes
and similar spirits, and so the purpose of this maiden mask can be at least somewhat clarified. Of the two most important mask types among the Igbo--
those idealizing the qualities of young women, and those representing the powers of men, the maiden mask embodies the former. When the mask is
worn, always by a man, the maiden spirit a dancer personifies represents the ideals of youthful feminine grace and beauty, albeit exaggerated both in
the masks and the performance of them.

Igbo models of beauty are based on both physical and moral dimensions. Physically a girl should be tall and slender, with a long neck, full and pointed
breasts, light complexion and small features, her hair elaborately dressed (preferably in the crested style) and her features brought out by facial tattoos.
These observable qualities mirror the spiritual traits desired by Igbo males - purity, as defined by the paleness of her complexion, grace in the form of
her facial features and the manner in which the spirit is danced, obedience, good character, and generosity. In addition, the crested hairstyle, which is
often considered a sign of wealth or royalty, is a symbol of the young Igbo maiden as the source of bride-wealth for her family upon her marriage. Such
physical and moral ideals are often not matched in reality, and are not necessarily meant to the maiden spirits are transcendent, a connection between
Igbo desires of beauty and the spiritual awesomeness of the incarnate dead.

Maiden mask artists favored red, orange, yellow, and black pigments to highlight their carvings, along with other colors, and these can be seen on the
entirety of the mask. As in a number of the more elaborate masks, which can have anywhere from one to three hair crests, this maiden has three crests
dramatically pairing positive and negative space.

Maiden masks are used mostly during agricultural festivals (usually the dry season) and the second funerals of prominent society members. On latter
occasions maiden spirits are invoked alongside other spirits as appropriate escorts of the highly respected dead into the spirit world. During agricultural
or other ceremonies, however, maiden spirits appear to aid in watching over the living and to promote abundant harvests, fertility, and general
prosperity. Maiden spirits are light-hearted in contrast to more menacing spirits of the Igbo world, which often generate a more serious atmosphere.
Maiden maskers perform almost theatrically, as if in a play, their purpose to entertain both human and spirit audiences.

Aniakor, Chike C. and Herbert M. Cole. Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos. Museum of Cultural History, University of California: Los Angeles, 1984.
Igbo maiden-spirit maskers near Akwa, Nigeria 1935

"The white maiden masks, all danced by men, have super structures of several
types, indicating spirit characters of different ages. The eldest daughter, called
Headload because of her mask's large figured superstructure, leads the others. Her
younger sisters, following, have elaborate crested hairstyles and small pointed
breasts. All wear bright polychrome appliqué cloth "body suits" whose patterning
loosely resemble monochromatic designs painted on youthful females in the area.
Other characters in the drama are a mother, a father, sometimes an irresponsible
son, and a suitor costumed as a titled elder, whose amorous, often bawdy advances
to one or more "girls" are invariably rebuffed. The play unfolds predictably, with the
maidens' dances becoming ever faster and more virtuosic as the maskers compete
with one another for audience approval and even financial reward."

Source: A History of Art in Africa
To read an article written by John Monroe about the Igbo "Beautiful Maiden" Masks
The link will open in a new window. It is a very good and educational article.
I currently do not have an Igbo mask in my collection - Examples below for reference purposes

SALE N08029  

11 Nov 04

New York

LOT 82


ESTIMATE 10,000—15,000 USD
Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   12,000 USD

height 23 3/4 in. 60.5cm

agbogho mmwo, of hollowed helmet-like form, the stylized facial features including a pierced, diamond-shaped mouth beneath the sharp nose bisecting
the slit eyes and decorated with linear and circular scarification, the whole surmounted by a complex openwork coiffure comprised of three arching bands
punctuated by circular and cylindrical motifs; varied aged surface with areas of red, white, black and blue pigment.

Cf. Sotheby's New York, April 21, 1990, lot 242, for a related mask formerly in the Harry Franklin Collection.

This mask represents numerous attributes of the ideal of female beauty among the Igbo. Worn each year for 'The Fame of Maidens' ceremony, it is
intended to instruct youths in attitudes necessary for moral as well as physical beauty. Physically, height and litheness, good posture, a straight nose and
small mouth are all ideals. These traits are physical indices to the moral ideals of purity, obedience, good character and generosity (Cole and Aniakor
1982: 121).

SALE N08029  AUCTION DATE 11 Nov 04 10:15 AM.

New York

LOT 83


ESTIMATE 12,000—18,000 USD
Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   24,000 USD

height 24 1/2 in. 62.3cm

agbogho mmwo, of helmet-like form, the parted lips baring small teeth beneath the aquiline nose, bisecting slit, pierced eyes and framed by demi-lune
ears, the whole surmounted by an elaborate, tripartite coiffure incised at the base with curvilinear motifs beneath two flanges in the form of birds flanking a
central crest with multiple tiers and conical projections; encrusted, blackened patina with traces of kaolin.

Eric Robertson, New York

New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Africa: The Art of a Continent, June 7 - September 29, 1996

Probably carved in the northeastern part of the Igbo region, these masks are rare in their blackened patination and more planear, than angular, facial
features. Cf. Cole and Aniakor (1984: 125, figure 226) for a closely related mask, formerly in the Hammer Collection, and Drewal (1977: 43, figure 42a and
b) for another, formerly in the Ratner Family Collection.
Other Igbo masks and objects for reference

SALE N07795  

17 May 02 10:15 AM.

New York

LOT 59


ESTIMATE 50,000—70,000 USD
Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   41,825 USD

height 28in. (71.1cm.)

of hollowed conical form and large proportion, pierced around the rim for attachment, two pierced eyeholes beneath the face with diamond-shaped
pierced mouth baring teeth, a triangular nose and oval eyes inset with mirrors framed by c-shaped ears, the whole elaborately carved in low-relief with
linear and geometric motifs, the reverse depicting a sunburst and a lizard, the upswept pointed flanges leading to a tiered finial; exceptionally fine
surface of kaolin, indigo, red ochre and black pigments.

Roger Azar, Paris
Galerie Leloup, Paris

Cole and Aniakor, Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos, 1984: 136, figure 241, catalogue of the exhibition at The Frederick S. Wright Art Gallery,
University of California, Los Angeles, October 9-November 25, 1984 (see bibliography for additional venues)
Neyt, 1985: 80, figure II.52

This unusual and particularly imaginative helmet mask is from the Nsukka area, the northern part of the northcentral Igbo region in Nigeria. This region
has one of the most complex and diverse masking traditions in Nigeria, perhaps because of the presence of the Omabe and Odo cults. Here one finds a
multitude of masks which are independent inventions, such as the present example, which do not fit clearly into a specific type. Particularly notable on
the offered lot is the high level of abstraction and the interplay of form and surface evident in the bold patterning of color.
SALE N07996  AUCTION DATE 14 May 04 10:15 AM.

New York

LOT 53


ESTIMATE 40,000—60,000 USD
Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   90,000 USD

height 54 1/4 in. 1.38m

ugonachomma, standing on wedge-shaped feet beneath broad anklets, the figure with slightly bent knees and elongated legs tapering to the slender torso
with a protruding pointed navel, conical breasts and full, rounded shoulders pitched slightly forward, the bent arms encircled with armlets and bracelets
leading to the finely carved hands bearing a fan and crook in either hand, a disc-shaped pendant encircling the elongated neck beneath the tall,
elaborately incised single crested coiffure framing the highly stylized diminutive face with recessed chin, smiling mouth, pointed nose and almond-shaped
eyes; the whole decorated with incised organic and geometric motifs, the aged surface pigmented in deep layers of red and yellow ochre, black, white and
blue pigment.

Albert F. Gordon, New York

National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C., Extended loan, 1989-1993

Cole and Aniakor, Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos, 1984: 99, plate 21, catalogue of the exhibition, The Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, University of
California, Los Angeles, October 9 - November 25, 1984 (see bibliography for additional venues)

Cole 1984: 69, figure 11

This female figure represents one of the finest examples of Igbo sculpture, and certainly the hand of a master carver. The strength of the facial features
and development of the surface compares most closely to another female figure from the Schindler Collection at the Dallas Museum of Art (Robbins and
Nooter 1989: number 673 and cover). However, this figure compares even more favorably in the lightness and attenuation of form coupled with the subtle
suggestion of movement.

This figure is called ugonachomma, meaning 'the eagle seeks out beauty'. This saying metaphorically compares a young woman to an eagle as both are
held to high moral and aesthetic ideals in Igbo thought. Used during age-grade dance festivals, the figures are displayed as prestige emblems. It is
possible that in commissioning this type of figure 'there was an impulse to ask for something different and perhaps a bit grander than the sculpture owned
by the previous grade' (Cole and Aniakor 1984: 108). 'In these secular sculptures [the Igbo artists] freed themselves, distorting the body within a
naturalistic mode to emphasize the popular concepts of feminine beauty: long necks, fine hairstyles...precise attention to jewelry and other enhancing
features such as scarification and body painting, not to mention prestige objects such as mirrors and umbrellas (most of the latter have been broken off)'
(ibid.: 107).


Living mainly in the forested areas of south-west Nigeria, on both sides of the Niger River the Igbo number some ten million individuals.
Mainly farmers and merchants, they also hunt and fish. They are subdivided into thirty-three subgroups and are spread out among about
two hundred villages scattered through the thick forest or semifertile marshland. Only on the northern and western edges of the area,
under influence from Igala and Benin, are hereditary rulers found. The heads of families form the council of elders, which shares its power
with numerous secret societies. These societies exercise great political and social influence. They are highly hierarchical, their members
passing from one level to the next. There is strong social pressure toward individual distinction, and men can move upward through
successive grades by demonstrating their achievements and their generosity.

The lack of overall centralization among the Igbo-speaking peoples has been conducive to the development of a great variety of art styles
and cultural practices. The earliest sculpture known from Igboland is from the village of Ibo Ukwu, where the grave of a man of distinction
and a ritual store, dating from the 9th century AD, contained both chased copper objects and elaborate castings of leaded bronze. Ibo
sculpture is subject to rather strict rules: the figures are generally frontal, symmetrical, and upright, with legs slightly spread, arms held
away from the body, and hands stretched forward, palms open. Proportions are true to those of the human body, with the exception of the
neck, which is more elongated. The whole gives the impression of balance and stability yet lacks the degree of refinement and precision.
The altar statues called ikenga are sculpted from hard wood. They include a pair of horns, identified as the horns of a ram who “fights with
his head” – hence is symbolic of aggression and perseverance. Since the ram rarely fights, he therefore symbolizes self-control and
determination to the Igbo. The statue is scarified to reflect the status of its owner. Young men acquire an ikenga at various ages, but they
all own one of them by the time they get married and settle down. The large ikenga belong to whole communities, age groups, or lineages.
They are characterized by complex hairdos, which, again, use the theme of horns. These statues are displayed during ceremonies and
strengthen the sense of community solidarity.  The alusi figures are the protective divinities associated with elements of nature (the rivers,
the earth) or social elements (markets, ancestors). They are gathered in sanctuaries on the model of familial Igbo groups, and – in the
hairstyles, the scarring, and the ornaments – they present the status symbols of influential people. There is a recurrent element in the
palms of the hands, turned one to the other to indicate frankness, the openness to giving and receiving, the relationship of reciprocity that
exists between men and gods.

The Igbo use thousands of masks, which incarnate unspecified spirits or the dead, forming a vast community of souls. The outstanding
characteristic of the many Igbo masks is that they are painted chalk white, the color of the spirit. Masked dancers wore extremely elaborate
costumes (sometimes ornamented with mirrors) and often their feet and hands were covered. With their masks, the Igbo oppose beauty to
bestiality, the feminine to the masculine, black to white. The masks, of wood or fabric, are employed in a variety of dramas: social satires,
sacred rituals (for ancestors and invocation of the gods), initiation, second burials, and public festivals, which now include Christmas and
Independence Day. Some masks appear at only one festival, but the majority appear at many or all. Best known are those of the Northern
Ibo mmo society, which represent the spirits of deceased maidens and their mothers with masks symbolizing beauty. Among the Southern
Ibo, the ekpe society, introduced from the Cross River area, uses contrasting masks to represent the maiden spirit and the elephant spirit,
the latter representing ugliness and aggression and the former representing beauty and peacefulness. A similar contrast is found in their
okorosia masks, which correspond to the mmo of the Northern Ibo. The Eastern Ibo are best known for masquerades associated with the
harvest festival, in which the forms of the masks are determined by tradition, though the content of the play varies from year to year. Stock
characters include Mbeke, the European; Mkpi, the he-goat; and Mba, which appear in pairs, one representing a boy dressed as a girl
mimicking the behavior of a girl, the other representing the girl being satirized.

A great many other decorative wooden objects are made, including musical instruments, doors, stools, mirror frames, trays for offering kola
nuts to guests, dolls, and a variety of small figures used in divination.

Rand African Art
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