African

Headdress

Artist: Unknown
Culture/People: Ekoi or Ejagham
Place:Southeastern Nigeria
Media: Wood, antelope skin, metal, pigment, bone, and raffia
Dims: 26.75 x 16 x 22.5 in. (68 x 57.3 x 40.6 cm)
Date: Late 1800s
RTC No: AF0004
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011

Description

The Ekoi, also known as Ejagham, are a large ethnic group consisting of several tribes and nation-states from the southeastern region of Nigeria and western Cameroon where Bantoid languages are spoken. Their artistic tradition is evident through their remarkable wooden crest headdresses adorned with antelope hide, which embody spiritual and social significance within Ekoi culture.

Commissioned by elite men’s and women’s associations organized by age, status, and those who have undergone specific rites or mastered certain skills, they represent ideals of beauty and authority. These dramatic and one-of-a-kindmasterpieces often display impressive coiffures resembling horns and were worn attached to the top of the head and danced in ceremonies.

Creating these headdresses is a meticulous process, where artists sculpt the foundational structure from a single piece of wood, carefully stretching damp antelope skin over it, allowing it to dry and take shape. Delicate features such as facial expressions, scarification patterns, and meticulously styled hair are carved and affixed separately. They may also include pigments, metals, feathers, and quills.

The headdresses are worn by the Ekpe (or Egbo, Ibibio for Leopard), a secret men’s society still practiced in southeastern Nigeria and in the diaspora in Cuba and other Caribbean nations. This one was owned and danced by the members of the men’s association, the Nsikpe.

Ralph T. Coe purchased this one in 1956 after he had completed a course at Yale in African Tribal Art. He remembers seeing it for the first time in the Julius Carlebach Gallery in New York City, saying it “…knocked me out on the spot!” It was featured in the 1958 film Bell, Book, and Candle, with Kim Novac and James Stewart.

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