Thursday, 10 July 2014

Nigerian Masquerade Costume On Display

PRM 1914.26.8 © Pitt Rivers Museum
On display in the Museum is this impressive full length masquerade costume from the Cross River region of Nigeria. Percy Amaury Talbot collected this while working as a colonial district commissioner in southern Nigeria. The photograph you can see below, taken by Talbot circa 1912, shows a member of the Akpambe cult almost certainly wearing the same costume.

Talbot's photo, 1998.177.5.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Akpambe, now mainly known as Obasinjom, is still practised in parts of Nigeria and Cameroon. Similar costumes are still worn for masquerades performed to detect witchcraft, which is often thought to be the cause of misfortune. The wearer becomes possessed by the Obasinjom spirit and moves around in a gliding fashion searching out witches in the local community.

The carved wooden mask worn on top of the head represents a crocodile. This is an animal that, like a witch, is dangerous on land and water. Mirrors have been used to create the eyes and signify the divinatory power of the masquerader. The feathers you can see on the headdress are said to be significant because they enable Obasinjom to pursue witches in flight.

I think this is probably the earliest intact costume of this type and encourage you to see it for yourself. Find this on the ground floor of the Museum in a new display exploring the fascinating subject of Nigerian Masks and Masquerade.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

To read more about this masquerade see:

Koloss, Hans-Joachim, 1985, 'Obasinjom among the Ejagham' in African Arts Volume 18, Number 2 (February), pages 63-65 & 98-101 & 103.

Roschenthaler, Ute, 2004, 'Transacting Obasinjom: The Dissemination of a Cult Agency in the Cross River Area' in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute Volume 74, Number 2, pages 241-276.

Talbot, Percy Amaury, 1912, In the Shadow of the Bush. London: W. Heinemann.

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