Face masks are used to masquerade and disguise the identity of people who wear them. They are used by numerous traditional African communities in different social occasions, such as marriage ceremonies, funerals, religious festivals, and other social events within the community. As a ruler, they are a part of a costume used with traditional music and dances.
Face masks are different and have many meanings depending on the community and event, for which they are worn. Different communities have their own designs for masks depending on what they want to demonstrate and what message to pass. This is the reason for the huge diversity in the kinds of masks from one community to the other. The Igbo and Ogoni people are a part of the indigenous communities of the Nigeria. The paper will study and compare the use of masks in the two tribes.
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The Igbo people originate from South Eastern Nigeria, also known as Igboland. They are among the largest tribes of the country. They practice farming as their major economic activity. They also fish and hunt. Their leadership is vested in the village councils, elders, and men with titles. These are the people, who are the most prominent in the village and, hence, lead most of the festivities. The Igbo people are very creative as is shown by the way they pass on stories, which tell about old times and teach morals. The members of the tribe also make sculptures, which have been displayed in museums around the world. Some statues had spiritual use while others act as status symbols for the owners. They are also known for their great architectural skills, so-called mbari architecture.
Among the Igbo, carving is viewed as the occupation for men while women make baskets and pottery (Aniakor, & Cole, 1984). The Igbo people have set standards and rules on how sculptures are made with most of them having similar characteristics. They also make and decorate wooden items, such as tools and doors. Different items are made from wood and other natural materials. Pigment dyes and kaolin are used to decorate them. Other tribes that are involved in making masks are Ibibio, Yoruba, and Anang.
As there are many Igbo villages, the types of masks differ among them, the purpose and ceremonies for which they are used are also different. It is often hard to distinguish between the masks from different areas of Igboland. The difference in masks emerges because each village has its own experiences and history that has influenced the art work. The Igbo have a wide range of artwork and cultural practices. They also have thousands of masks that were created to enable a man look like a spirit. Most of the masks are carved from wood and are painted white with chalk and kaolin. Examples of the Igbo masks are Agbogho Mmuo, the Acali mask, the elephant mask, and the Eze Nwanyi mask. The Igbo masks were made in an attempt to tempt fate.
According to Njoku (1990), these masks are used during entertainment, festivals, rites of passage, burials, and sacred rituals. The masks were used to depict and represent different things. Some masks were worn only during specific events that took place within the community; however, most were used on all occasions. The two most important mask types among the Igbo-ones were those idealizing the qualities of young women, and representing the power of men (Aniakor, & Cole, 1984). The common Igbo masks are characterized by small well placed features with tattoos; they are decorated with pigments, especially the white on the face, to depict the color of the ghost. The Igbo people believe in reincarnation after death and, hence, most of their masks depict their belief in spirits.
The Agbogho Mmuo, or the maiden mask, represents the spirit of the dead maidens. It is a symbol of beauty. According to Aniakor & Cole (1984), the artists, who create maidens masks, favor red, orange, yellow and black pigments to highlight the carving, and get three crests, dramatically pairing positive and negative space. It depicts the ideal qualities of a young woman, as desired by a young man. The maiden mask has crested hairstyle considered by the community as a sign of royalty and wealth, to symbolize the wealth brought to her family when the bride price is paid during the marriage (Aniakor & Cole, 1984).
Some masks are used during agricultural ceremonies to invoke fertility in farm and bountiful harvests in the area. Dances and plays are performed by people to entertain the public. The Agbogho Mmuo is normally worn by men during the sacred dance. The mask can also be worn during the burials of prominent people within the society, to invoke the spirits to accompany these noble people.
Another Igbo mask is the Acali mask; it is associated with the deity and respected members of the Egbele Secret Society in Afikpo. It is made of wood and plant fibers. Pigment is used to bring out the features. Among the Igbo people from Afikpo, it is believed that when one puts on the Acali mask, he or she becomes a spirit. According to Ottenberg, the mask is worn during the dry season festival by the youngest dancers. It is not a very common mask, as compared to the maiden mask. The Eze Nwanyi, or the Queen of Women, mask represents a woman who commands the respect of everyone in the village and is a true leader. It embodies the ideals of a mature female and is worn in ceremonies conducted to purify villages (Birmingham Museum of Art, 2010).
The Ogoni are among the smallest tribes of Nigeria and are located in Rivers State, to the east of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Their main economic activities are farming and fishing. The Ogoni people are also rich in art and folklore including festivals where masks and costumes are used in songs and dances (Gearon, 2002). The Ogoni masks have characteristic hinged jaws for more control. Masquerades are used for entertainment, for punishment and social control, to honor gods and to demonstrate male power and aggressions (Kpone-Tonwe, Salmons, 2002). The Ogoni are known for their use of masks in festivals, cultural, religious, and political events.
Kpone-Tonwe and Salmons (2002) assert, “The Ogoni have eight types of wood masks: small face masks representing women and men used for masquerading, larger more grotesque face masks representing restless spirits, small zoomorphic face masks, large face masks depicting fierce animals, human figurines representing ancestors, headdresses, carved figures, and puppets.” According to Kpone-Tonwe and Salmons (2002), the Ogoni rituals concern recognitions of the ancestors, the growing of crops, the rearing of animals, and the significance of water to the region. Examples of the Ogoni masks include the Elu face mask, and the red Ogoni face mask.
The Elu face mask is used during celebrations, to entertain, and at burials of prominent members. It is made out of wood and decorated with pigment, to accentuate the features. The red Ogoni mask depicts a red face with black markings on the cheeks. The cheeks hinges at the jaw. The Ogoni masks are not as widely known as the Igbo masks. They are used as puppet masks and the hinges on them make it easier to control and entertain people, especially children.
There are similarities between the Igbo and Ogoni masks. One is that they both are used in ceremonies and rites of passage, funerals, and agricultural festivals among others. The medium used to make the masks in both communities is also similar. Wood and sometimes bronze are the main materials used, while pigments are added to accentuate the features. In both communities, masks are worn with costumes during songs and dances. They are also equally talented in carving items out of wood, making sculptures, and other artwork. They were both used to invoke spirits and pray for society’s prosperity.
Among the differences between masks from the two communities is the fact that the Ogoni masks are smaller and have unhinged jaws, as compared to the Igbo masks. The Igbo masks, on the other hand, have a more articulated jaw, which is useful when it is used in a puppet play. There are also some differences in appearance. Masks in Nigeria, especially among the Igbo and Ogoni, were used for many purposes, mainly ceremonies. They were used during the dry season to invoke rain and to pray for plenty of food to be harvested. During other ceremonies and festivities, the masks are worn for entertainment and to pass messages to those present. Folklores also play a major role in the transfer of the traditions of the tribe. Each group has its own genre and names for masks, created in accordance to the tribe’s history and traditions.
In conclusion, the culture of making masks is very important to the Igbo and the Ogoni people as it is a way to make the new generations understand the traditions of the community. They can also sell them as artifacts and get money from tourists, hence enhancing the economy of the society. The masks have also been instrumental in shaping the culture of the two communities; for example, the masks and sculptures of the Igbo people are displayed in museums all over the worlds. They provide world community with an insight into the culture and life of the tribes.
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