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ARTISTIgala artist
Helmet mask

DATEMid-20th century

MEDIUM Wood, pigment

DIMENSIONS 40cm H, 86cm W, 71cm D




The Igala inhabit the left bank of the Niger River, south of its confluence with the Benue in central Nigeria. They have had historical connections with their neighbors the Igbo and the Idoma, and also with the Jukun, the Yoruba and Edo peoples of the Benin Kingdom. Because the Igala are situated near the confluence of two of West Africa's most important waterways, the Niger and Benue Rivers, their art, culture and history have interacted with not only their immediate neighbors, the Igbo and Idoma, but with more distant peoples such as the Jukun, the Yoruba and the Edo peoples of the Benin Kingdom. Consequently, the Igala population consists of ethnically diverse clans that retain their own historical origins. Within the Igala state, however, the population speaks the same language and exhibits similar cultural traits. Over time, the western Igala have developed a highly evolved artistic complex of masks and masquerades to represent the spiritual relationship between living members of the community and the ancestors. The masks are an expression of the cult of the ancestors and a physical representation of both collective and individual ancestor figures. They also reflect the cultural, ethnic and political reality of the diverse Igala state. Among the most important masking complexes of the Igala are the so-called central public masquerades known as Egwu-Ata. While ostensibly under the direct control of the ruling house, each mask exists in an individual clan or group that keeps, cares for and performs it. Each masquerade exhibits certain physical characteristics that identify the group and its relationship to the larger community. Together these masks signify the state or nation. This fine helmet mask is close in type to one of the Egwu-Ata masks known as odumado. The large well-shaped head has carefully cut half-moon eyes, straight brows, circular ears with raylike motifs inside, a small, projecting nose and beautifully rendered parallel striations on the face and neck that represent scarification. The parallel zigzag lines of the coiffure cover the head. The blue pigment on the coiffure is probably indigo. Traces of encrustation in the middle of the forehead extend to the bridge of the nose, where abrus seeds were attached. In some odumabo masks, kaolin is rubbed on certain areas. A costume made of cloth was attached to the holes along the bottom of the mask. Masks similar to this example reportedly are controlled and performed by the Orata clan, a highly ranked group that originated among the Akpoto. While described as the indigenous population among the Igala, the Akpoto appear to have expanded northward from the Cross River Basin, perhaps around 1400. They have interacted extensively over the centuries with other cultures including those of the Benin Kingdom, the Igbo and the Tiv. The odumado mask type represents the Akpoto population and is a symbol of the Akpoto dynastic era within the Igala political sphere. Odumade is especially important during the Ocho festival, an annual celebration of the New Yam Harvest in which the cleansing of the soil, recognition of land rights, the re-creation of sociopolitical relationships, and the connection between the monarchy and the indigenous population takes place. Odumado appears during the first phase of this festival, which celebrates the Akpoto as the original owners of the land.