Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Preparing a Nigerian Mask for Display

Mask, PRM 1938.15.69 © Pitt Rivers Museum
I am busy working on a new display in the Museum focusing on Nigerian masks and masquerade. While looking for masks that have not been on display, I came across an interestingly shaped, brightly painted one in a number of pieces.

Photo taken by Edward R. Chadwick in 1930s, 
PRM1998.208.39.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Gwilym Iwan Jones gave the mask to the  Museum in this condition in 1938 and provided this photo to help with its reconstruction. Here we can see the carver, as well as the complete mask. Unfortunately we do not know the mans name, only that he is from the Ikwerre region of the Niger Delta in south-east Nigeria. If anyone recognises who this is please do get in touch.

The mask represents a masquerade character called Abam, a predatory fish. It is worn on top of the head with a masquerade costume concealing the wearers face. In the two photos below, taken during the 1930s, you can see Ikwerre men wearing similar style masks to perform owu or water-spirit masquerades.

 Probably both taken by Edward R. Chadwick in the 1930s
Right: PRM 1998.208.39.2 Left: PRM 1998.208.39.3 © Pitt Rivers Museum

John and I studying the mask © Pitt Rivers Museum
In the Collections Department of the Pitt Rivers Museum we look after the information about the objects. We are always keen to find out as much as we can. So in November I met up with the very knowledgeable John Picton, Emeritus Professor of African Art at the University of Londons School of Oriental and African Studies. John confirmed the Ikwerre people, who are often regarded as part of the southern Igbo peoples, still perform masquerades wearing impressive masks like this.

The reassembled mask ready for display 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Miriam Orsini, a Conservation intern at the Museum, has carefully reassembled the mask with the help of the old black and white photo. My colleagues Alan Cooke and Chris Wilkinson, from the Technical Services Department, are currently devising suitable fittings to enable this mask to be included in the forthcoming Nigerian mask and masquerade display. I will let you know when the display is installed, and if you have an opportunity to visit the Museum I encourage you to come and see this mask for yourself, as well as the rest of the display.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

To see my previous blog posts about African masks, click on the links below:

To read more about Igbo masks and masquerades see:

Picton, John, 1988, Ekpeye Masks and Masking in African Arts Volume 21, Number 2 (February), pages 46-53 & 94.

Jones, G.I., 1989, Ibo Art. Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications Ltd.

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