Maiden Mask

Artist: Unknown
Culture/People: Igbo
Place: Nigeria, West Africa
Media: Wood and pigment
Dims: 18.5 x 8.5 v 12.25 in. (46.9 x 21.6 x 31.1 cm).
Date: Early 20th C.
RTC No: AF0001
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011


In the north-central region (Awkwa area) of where the Igbo live, masks owned by men from about 30 to 50 years old are displayed during regular agricultural festival cycles as well as in more restricted rituals such as commemorative funeral celebrations. In a festival called “The Fame of Maidens,” male performers wear a knitted and appliqued costume, perhaps brass anklets, and a mask that embodies ideals of youthful feminine beauty. This one in the Coe Collection is called Agbogho Mmanwu (mmuo).

The image is that of a woman whose face is painted white (white denotes spirituality) and has small features, an elaborate coiffure, facial tattoos, and painting. Her demeanor is restrained. The greatest creative liberty is shown in the elaborate coiffures and crest atop the face, all carved from one piece of wood. Flamboyant crest-like hairstyles and red, yellow, orange, and blue pigments appear only after the 1930s. Relatively few masks are ornamented with animal figures. A python, which is intertwined in the coiled coiffure, connotes power, beauty, and danger. Pythons are considered messengers of the gods; they are feared and admired. The celebration of femininity and motherhood attests to the importance of women in Igbo society. In their language, the concepts of beauty and goodness are expressed by the same word. Thus, composure and elegance convey both moral and physical beauty.

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