1. Tall Ghost (fig. 4.1)
Up to fifteen feet tall and honoring their ancestors, “tall ghost” traditions travel along the Benue and Niger Rivers. The spirit is concealed—the face of the masquerader is disguised with a mask and the bodily armature is transformed, often by adding many layers, bulking out to non-human proportions and thereby commanding greater presence; or, as in the case of the tall ghosts, adding to its height with raised arms, a stick held up high, or a tall frame, often of bamboo. For these masquerades, the bodily armature is completely covered in woven cloth burial-like shrouds, and with a stick the masquerader manipulates the fabric, elongating and collapsing the covering as the “tall ghost” sways from side to side and leaps, twists, and twirls to the beat of drums. Voice disguisers add to the ghostly illusion. The tradition is widespread, one that perhaps originated in the Middle Benue with the Jukun peoples and moved down the Benue along with migrating populations. Some historians argue the reverse, theorizing that these masquerades originated among the Yoruba peoples. No matter the direction of adoption, the tall ghosts are a telling example of how an idea and form can travel.
A. Have the class view, at least twice, the Ancestral Incarnations along the Benue video on the Fowler Museum’s website (fowler.ucla.edu). After the first viewing have students comment on, discuss, and question what they’ve seen, and then view the video again. Lead discussions and questioning, perhaps stressing the following aspects:
Note the interaction between participants and viewers.
Be aware that the identity of the masquerader is concealed. The community is not supposed to know how the action takes place because the masqueraders are ancestral “ghosts.”
What do students notice in the video besides the people—ghostly and otherwise?
Are students aware of the sounds?
Can students speculate on the significance of some of the actions and/or behaviors they see? (i.e., bowing in respect to ancestors, taunting, both attention and indifference)
What words would they use to describe the performer? (agile, highly skilled)
B. Place the students in the role of observer/reporter at an actual masquerade. Immediately reacting to what they’ve seen, have them tweet about it to a friend at home. Later, with the understanding that “140 characters” will leave recipients of the tweet wanting to know more, have them write a letter or journal entry describing the scene and the action, and recounting their reactions.
C. Can students create miniature “tall ghosts?” Ideas to pursue are pop-up puppets or marionettes; representing the dancer with forearms and hands as elbows rest on a table; constructing a frame of wire, wood, or pipe cleaners to be covered with fabric scraps or scarves. Let students be creative in manipulating the figure with side-to-side swaying motions, an alternating elongating and collapsing movement, or a repetitive twisting pattern. Perhaps they will emulate the movements of a “tall ghost” in a student-life-size version.
2. Ekeucici (fig. 4.2)
Preceding the tall ghost a masked dancer, Ekuecici, serves as servant. His role is to clear the path of any trash so the tall ghost can travel without stumbling or falling. The facial features of Ekuecici’s mask, sharp and angular, are covered in ritual materials that are usually classed as waste or trash. The name of the mask comes from the words eku, meaning masquerade, and ecici usually translated into English as ‘rubbish,’ i.e., the loose stones, sticks, leaves, and household and other detritus scattered over the ground. His blue and white costume emulates the fabric used for the initial wrapping of a deceased person, has distinct sleeves and pant legs, and is frequently embellished with many multi-colored cloths.
A. Rooted in tradition and responsive to contemporary circumstances, the Ekuecici mask is one that commands novel interpretation from its maker. Sometimes “beast-like” in appearance, it does not strive to win beauty awards. Students could make an Ekuecici-inspired mask, preferably using “rubbish” as mask components.
B. Ekuecici masks now in public and private collections often look quite unlike the face covering of the performer who cleaned the path for the ghost dancer. In performance the mask was topped with dirt, rags, and sacrificial material. Before entering collections, these additions often were removed and the surface of the piece cleaned. What are other reasons that masksappear different when on display than they did when in use?
On display, a mask is like a sculpture, fixed in its form and place; in use it is dynamic, moving in a variety of speeds and motions.
The accompanying costumes, often made of organic materials are liable to have decomposed before the works entered collections. Sometimes costumes are completely or partially remade for each masquerade by the masquerade society that owns them.
A mask in a museum setting lacks the components so important in a performance, including music, dance, rituals, audience participation, etc. These, of course, influence the perception of the mask.
3. Elephant(Itrokwu) (fig. 4.3)
This large elephant mask (Itrokwu) is a metaphor for greatness and for the chief’s potential for destructive power. It was performed with an indigo burial cloth, worn as a kind of cloak over other layers of cloth to enhance its size. Its dance is “hot,” bursting into the compound aggressively, knocking over food-drying platforms, scattering cooking pots and audience, who remain at a respectful distance. This elephant is highly stylized: the three long extensions at the front of the mask are the animal’s long trunk and tusks, one set of tiny ears is on the crown, and another longer set of “ears” project from the rear.
A. As the elephant is a powerful symbol in the Itrokwu masquerade, so its power is celebrated orally in stories and proverbs, and in songs and poems of praise. An activity built around the tradition of praise poetry of neighboring Yoruba peoples of southeastern Nigeria would be appropriate here, and an eloquent poem in honor of the elephant is included as example. After students read the poem “Oriki Erin” (Salute to the Elephant), they will see how the animal is described both metaphorically and as actually observed.
“Oriki Erin” (“Salute to the Elephant”)
Spirit of the bush,
skin full of money,
spirit that shatters the forest
render of trees,
child of the forest destroyer,
offspring of the coconut-breaker,
elephant who kneels in a huge mass,
you whose mouth utters a laugh that enjoins respect…
If an elephant passes but once through a place,
it becomes a road and if his mother later passes through,
it becomes an extensive plain!...
His eye socket is like a big, wide pot,
his throat is like the dye pot.
But if nobody molests you, you molest nobody.
The elephant has only one arm but he can push down a palm tree.
If he had two, he would tear down the sky like a rag!
Coverer who covers this child like darkness!
(Drewal 1992, 186)
B.The class could cooperatively compose praise poems for other animals (preferably calling on a combination of research activity and experience).
C. Elephants are retained in the collective memory of a people. Even when there is none in the immediate environment or in lived experience, an artist may choose to portray the animal because of its enduring importance. Some portrayals are closer to the reality of the animal than others. The Itrokwu mask here is not a literal interpretation of an elephant’s appearance. Students may find other renditions as they look at masquerade images in the library or online, and they could determine which facets echo reality and others that function more metaphorically.
4. Ichahoho (fig. 4.4)
Ichahoho is a warrior’s masquerade indigenous to the southern Idoma. The Ichahoho’s carved mask is topped with horns, its knitted costume fits tightly, and it carries a machete as it challenges older men to mock battle. Formerly an expression of warrior-style aggression, the masquerade today is an expression of youthful hubris.
A. The Ichahoho is not performed for entertainment purposes, rather it is for social control. What other reasons can be found for masquerades? And what activities of youthful “acting out” are acceptable and/or predominant in students’ lives?
B.The Ichahoho mask is made of wood, which Lower Benue scholar Sydney L. Kasfir believes is not the oldest mask form in the Benue region (2011). In fact the wooden mask has developed at different times under differing circumstances. There are also acoustic masks that are only to be heard, and not seen; textile costumes; masks made of plant material; and others incorporating contemporary materials. Can students speculate on the order in which each of these, other than the wooden masks, started seeing use in the Benue River Valley?
acoustic masks (the oldest and most widespread): conceptualized as “invisible spirits” and usually with powerful sanctions and taboos associated with breaking that envelope of invisibility provided either by the darkness of night or if heard during daylight hours by being hidden from view.
plant material coverings (next to be used): made of leaves, tree bark…and in Idomaland, millet and guinea corn stalks or raffia palm fibers.
textile costumes…developed after the introduction of the portable double-heddle loom through the trans-Saharan trade. For the Benue region this was no earlier than the tenth century. Textiles as burial shrouds for ancestral masquerade textiles are dated to approximately the sixteenth century.
5. Face Mask (fig. 4.5)
The artist Oklenyi carved this mask in his very individual style. His face masks typically have rounded mouths and neat rows of upper and lower teeth, often set off by upward curving scars from the edges of the mouth. The configuration of this Idoma carving is distinctively that of Oklenyi, although multiheaded masks are found elsewhere in southeastern Nigeria.
A.This mask is made to cover the wearer’s face and transform the masquerader into a spirit. Students should note to what extent other Benue masks conceal the body and look for examples in the exhibition.
helmet masks that cover the whole head
crest masks worn on top of the head
forehead masks to rest on the forehead
tall vertical masks that rest on the maskers’ shoulders
fabric masks for enclosing the face and whole body
B. An activity related to the multiple-faced masks will have students also drawing multiple faces—one each on five of the six sides of a paper cube (one, the bottom side, remains blank) that they construct of paper. A heavier stock would offer better rigidity for the cube. The template for the cube is included in this lesson. When drawing the faces students should be sure that at least two sides of each face are drawn to the outer edge of the cube. You may choose to assign the theme of their project (people important in students’ lives, the students themselves at various stages of their lives or displaying varied emotions, members of their families, etc.)
6. Ungulali Crest (fig. 4.6)
The term ungulali means “flute,” and flute music accompanied the Ungulali masks’ performance. It was reportedly used at Christmas festivities, funerals of important people, and other special events.
Ungulali crests may have stacks of two, three, or even four heads. Although this particular headpiece was collected in the Idoma village of Otobi in 1958, no one in the village recognized it twenty years later, leading scholars to believe that such multiheaded masks likely originated in the Cross River area nearby. Since objects like these are so portable, it is difficult to ascertain the authorship and identities of particular mask types, such as the Ungulali.
A. Students should discuss why objects such as the Ungulali mask are moved so easily from place to place, contributing to the difficulties in identifying and discerning their origin. (the size of masks makes them portable, they can be taken as war booty, and/or masks can become a commodity to be bought and sold.)
B. They can challenge or agree with the statement made by Professor Herbert M. Cole in African Arts of Transformation (1970, 42) that the distribution of multiheaded masks is functional: “multiple heads mean multiple superhuman powers,” and discuss reasons for their opinion. Do students see analogies to the notions of multiplicity in their own lives, i.e. wearing multiple pieces of jewelry or bling, cars with multiple modifications, personal altars with multiple images of the same saint, and tattoos. What messages are communicated in these multiples? Do they increase visual and metaphorical efficacy?
7. Afo Crests (fig. 4.7A,B,C)
Among the Afo, who live on the north side of the Benue River opposite the Idoma, artists make crest masks to be worn by the drummer at a funeral for a noble or important village elder, and/or when the drummer accompanies the chief on a visit to another village. The drummer is called Ekpeshi or “Featherman,” a reference to the rooster's comb on the mask (fig. 4.7A,B). The headdress (with holes for the cords that hold it on the wearer’s head) also includes references to chameleons and antelope horns, with each of these creatures evoking attributes to be prized (fig. 4.7A). The rooster is considered the messenger of deities and a signifier of abundance, the chameleon and its changing colors symbolizes magical powers of transformation, and the antelope horns are metaphors of power and fertility.
A. Each of the three crest masks here is unique, but related. Students could look for the correspondences and differences. Of the three, one is wood, one a copper alloy, and the third is made of both wood and metal. One presents a more simplified approach than the others, one has human figures in addition to the animal references.
B.We could end our experiences in this circulation of masquerades with a genre of poetry known as “mask” or “persona” poems. In this form the writer wears the mask and assumes the voice of the subject he or she is writing about. Here the students could assume the voice of one of the three creatures that typically appear on Afo crest masks: the rooster, the chameleon, and the antelope (as discussed above). Or they could assume the voice of an inanimate object as in the sample about bells that follows:
Back and forth, side to side.
Call dancers from the bush.
You could give guidelines to younger students as they take the voice of an object: Restrict the number of lines (about six or seven). The first and last lines name the subject. The other lines (as determined by you) could describe it with just an adjective or with a simile comparing it to something else; could tell something it can do, or wants, or wishes, or sees.