Antique Igbo Mask from Nigeria 15x16in
The Igbo use thousands of masks, which incarnate unspecified spirits of 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.