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Efik/Ejagham peoples, Upper Cross River Basin, Nigeria/Cameroon
This fine and rare headdress, from the Ejagham and Efik peoples of the upper Cross River basin and estuary, in the Nigerian-Cameroon borderland, is made
of fine antelope skin stretched over a rattan template. The eyes and teeth are coloured with a white ochre and the scalp is embellished with remnants of
applied human hair.
The headdress, most probably a spirit with symmetrical human form, has articulated limbs with arms that are movable, a face with exaggerated simian features
and a series of eight protruding nodules, and it sits on a low stool. It would have been attached to a knitted textile that covered the performer's face and worn
atop the head.
A prestigious men's association evolved among the Ejagham and Efik peoples known as Ekpe among the Ejagham and Egbo among the Efik. It centred on a
powerful leopard spirit known as Ngbe. This association implemented social and political rules and gained control over trade networks covering a wide area in
what is now southeast Nigeria and southwest Cameroon.
Headdresses such as the example here were used by the Egbo/Ekpe associations in their ritual masquerades. The covering of masks with animal skins was an
artistic development aimed at giving such masks an element of realism. It is possible that the practice evolved from a history of displaying decapitated trophy
heads taken in battle. A fierce figure, this example might have acted as a servant of the Ekpe/Egbo spirit or as an emblem for the association.
A similar though less well-formed example is in the Menil Collection of African Art and is illustrated in van Dyke (2008, p. 139). Another is illustrated in Bargna
(2000) and another in Fagg & List (1963, pl. 130).
A similar Ejagham headdress in terms of form and size was sold at Sotheby's New York, 'The William W. Brill Collection of African Art', November 17, 2006. (Lot
63, sale price: US$6,600).
References: Fagg, W. & H. List, Nigerian Images, National Commission for Museums & Monuments, Lagos, 1963; Bacquart, J., The Tribal Arts of Africa,
Thames & Hudson, 1998; and van Dyke, K. (ed.), African Art from the Menil Collection, Menil Foundation, 2008; and Bargna, I., African Art, Editoriale Jaca
Robert Bleakley collection.
Christie's London, 'Tribal Art', April 27, 1977, lot 191.
Inventory no.: 1001
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