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Igbo Mmuo mask

Igbo Mmuo mask
Igbo Mmuo maskIgbo Mmuo maskIgbo Mmuo maskIgbo Mmuo mask
Tribe: Igbo
Country: Nigeria
Ritual: Assumed made for the collector market
Name: Mmuo Crested Mask
Materials: Wood, glass beads, cloth, plastic disks, burlap
Provenance: Coll. Ibrahim Berete 1973-2002 New York. Nomad Galleries 2002. Andrew Turley, SuagaCollection 2002.
Comments: Two things indicate that this was made for the collector market - firstly I have seen several masks that closely resemble it and are of a “workshop” style and secondly the overworked (overly dirty nature) of the cloth helmet. I would be interested in professional assessment or opinion.

Living in small villages in the delta land of Nigeria, the Igbo practice ancestor worship. They carve and use masks but their functions vary from village to village.

The nearest interpretation of the word masquerade in the Igbo language is Mmonwu. Mmuo means spirit and onwu means death. The notion of masquerade rotates around these two concepts - spirit and death. Hence a masquerader is an actor or performer whose personal identity is attributed to the world of the spirit and physically concealed. That is why there is a certain aura around the performance, the masquerade is a force higher than human beings since it represents the coming back of "fathers" - ancestors - in visible form.

The Obugala Mmau (Agbogho Mmuo) is one of the most familiar types of masks produced by the prolific Igbo artists. Representing the "spirit of a young girl" it originates from central and northern Igbo country. Such masks are worn by young men during harvest celebrations and the ceremonies held annually in honour of the earth spirit. The "young girls" are accompanied by a "mother" whose mask is adorned with a crest or hood. The dancers wear colourful close fitting costumes with false breasts.

White was also the colour of the dead and masked dancers also appeared at funerals. They did not merely represent, but were believed to be, the spirit of the dead. They disguised their voices aiming to induce the dead mans spirit to enter the spirit world so as to avoid any harm to survivors.

There are 6 holes drilled in the upper edge of the mask but a cloth hinge is nailed to the mask and stitched to the inside of the half calabash that makes up the cap. The inside of the mask has been roughly cross hatched and smoothed and there is shine on the rough wood around eye, nose and mouth area. The crest on the helmet has an idealised expression that is recurrent in Igbo artistry, which is called "oko rosia nma", meaning "good - pretty". The dark eyebrows, nose, lips and arching tattoo patterns below the eyes are most consistent with the northern or north-eastern Igbo from around the villages Akwa and Agwa.


  1. African Art, Frank Willet. Praeger Publishers Inc NY. 1971.
  2. GI Jones Photographic Archive. Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Cambridge University.
  3. University of Iowa, Art and Life in Africa Project and UIMA. Stanley Collection Database.
  4. Masquerade in Igbo Cultural Milieu. Ben Okwu Eboh. Online.
  5. Funeral Ceremonies of the Ibo. Karen Hauser. Online. 1992.