TRIBAL AFRICAN ART

EKOI (EJAGHAM)

In the Cross River region in southeast Nigeria, and over into Cameroon, several ethnicities are found and among them the Ekoi. The oldest Cross River secret society may be the all-male Ngbe society of the Ekoi people. In their language ngbe means “leopard.” The cult of the leopard had a unifying effect on the scattered communities of the Cross River. Commercial, ritual, and social exchanges took place because of it, thus circumventing the drawbacks involved with a non-centralized regime and political institutions that often did not extend beyond the framework of the village.

The Ekoi-speaking peoples (Anyang, Boki, Ejagham, Keaka, and Yako) are best known for their large, skin-covered masks, which may have one, two or even three faces, and for their smaller headpieces, which represent a head or an entire figure. The heads and skin-covered helmet-masks are unique in Africa. Earlier skins of slaves, later skins of antelopes, were used. The elaborate trading network along the river formerly involved the selling of rights to Ngbe and other associations, including the right to perform their various masquerades. The group selling the rights would perform the masquerade in the village of the buyer group, then return home, leaving their masks and costumes behind. The river trade thus helped to spread related art events and art objects among diverse people over a broad area, though changes in both form and meaning took place as local copies of masks and costumes were made. Masks of secret societies appear in performances by accomplished dancers at funerals, initiations of new members, agricultural and other events. Two types of masks dominate: helmet masks and crest masks. The helmet mask covers the entire head of the wearer reaching to the shoulders. When the mask is made fresh animal skin is stretched and tacked over the soft wood from which it is carved. After the skin dried, it was stained with pigments made from leaves and bark. Crest masks do not cover the head but rather sit on top of it. They are attached to the basketry cap, which is held on the wearer’s head. The headpieces and masks often have metal teeth, inlaid eyes, and frequently pegs to represent hair, which, alternatively, may be carved in elaborate coils. Feathers, quills, and other objects would have ornamented the mask in performance. Human hair went into the hairdo. It is presumed that all masks represented ancestors. In addition to masks that represent human heads, there are also those that represent skulls and animals. All of these animal masks and grotesque masks are seen as fierce and frightening. The skin covering of a mask served as a magical agent to invoke ancestral spirits, thus eroding the barrier between living and dead participants in communal rituals. 

In the northern Ekoi area, around Ikom, are found large stones, akwanshi, from one to six feet high, carved in low relief to represent human figures. They are thought to be no earlier than the 16th century.

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