Field-photo of the day: an ‘okoroshi’ masquerade among the Usuama Igbo

An okoroshi masquerade featuring the character of Onyejuwe. Photo by G. I. Jones, 1930s, at Eziama Orlu (Isuama Igbo).

An okoroshi masquerade featuring the character of Onyejuwe. Photo by G. I. Jones, 1930s, at Eziama Orlu (Isuama Igbo).

One of the sleepers in the Kunin sale was the below Igbo mask which was much better than its estimate suggested. After doing some research on it I found much more information than was available in the sale catalogue and traced down the masks’ possible village of origin. G.I. Jones photographed a very similar mask among the Isuama Igbo in Eziama Orlu in the 1930s. Comparing the mouth, ears, nose, eyes and eyebrows with the mask under discussion here, it’s very probable this mask was made by the same sculptor.

Igbo mask. Height: 49,3 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Igbo mask. Height: 49,3 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Another mask from this artist is in the collection of Yale University. G.I. Jones wrote that the carver of these masks was a professional canoe maker who spent a large part of his time working with his gang in the forests of the northern Delta. (Jones (G.I.), “The art of Eastern Nigeria”, Cambridge, 1984: p. 123).

Igbo mask. Height: 42,6 cm. Image courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, USA (2006.51.515).

Igbo mask. Height: 42,6 cm. Image courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, USA (2006.51.515).

Okoroshi was a six week Igbo masking season during which water spirits bless the growing crops during the height of the rainy season. White-faced masks generally embodied benign female characters who dance prettily in open arenas for large crowds. They were conceptually opposed to dark masked male characters, often with ugly faces.

There’s another field-photo of this mask during the same performance.

An okoroshi masquerade depicting a close up of two beautiful characters. The one on the right is called Onyejuwe.The character on the left is wearing a white face mask consisting of an oval face with a high forehead with black painted head and a superstructure of two pointed horns and a carved white faced head in the centre; the face of the mask is white with black lines down the centre of the forehead, chin and black diagonal markings on the cheeks. The costume consists of layers of plaid cloth; two cloths are hanging from the wooden headdress.The character on the right, known as Onyejuwe, is wearing a white face mask with an elaborate headdress consisting of two pointed and arched horns emanating from the sides and in the middle are three carved faces painted white. The face of the mask is painted white with black incised coiffure a the top, black lines in the centre of the forehead and on both cheeks; slit eyes, nose and open mouth exaggerated mouth with white teeth. The masquerader is wearing covered in cloth. Photo by G. I. Jones, 1930s, at Eziama Orlu.

An okoroshi masquerade depicting a close up of two beautiful characters. The one on the right is called Onyejuwe.The character on the left is wearing a white face mask consisting of an oval face with a high forehead with black painted head and a superstructure of two pointed horns and a carved white faced head in the centre; the face of the mask is white with black lines down the centre of the forehead, chin and black diagonal markings on the cheeks. The costume consists of layers of plaid cloth; two cloths are hanging from the wooden headdress.The character on the right, known as Onyejuwe, is wearing a white face mask with an elaborate headdress consisting of two pointed and arched horns emanating from the sides and in the middle are three carved faces painted white. The face of the mask is painted white with black incised coiffure a the top, black lines in the centre of the forehead and on both cheeks; slit eyes, nose and open mouth exaggerated mouth with white teeth. The masquerader is wearing covered in cloth. Photo by G. I. Jones, 1930s, at Eziama Orlu.

Eziama Orlu is located at number (28) – in Usuama Igbo territory – on the map below.

Map from Jones (Gwilym Iwan), "The art of Eastern Nigeria", Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Map from Jones (Gwilym Iwan), “The art of Eastern Nigeria”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

The Kunin mask most likely represented the same Okoroshi character – called nwanyure (‘proud woman’) – as featured on the field-photo below. Note the very similar iconography.

An Okorosie or Okoroshi masquerade with a ‘beautiful’ female charater. The masquerader is wearing a wooden white face mask that is oval in shape with a superstructure of another carved head with plaits on top. The white face is accentuated with balck markings and with two diagonal lines on the cheeks. The masquerader is draped in several cloths and is holding a clapper in one hand. Photo by G. I. Jones, 1930s, at Eziama Orlu (Isuama Igbo).

An Okorosie or Okoroshi masquerade with a ‘beautiful’ female charater. The masquerader is wearing a wooden white face mask that is oval in shape with a superstructure of another carved head with plaits on top. The white face is accentuated with balck markings and with two diagonal lines on the cheeks. The masquerader is draped in several cloths and is holding a clapper in one hand. Photo by G. I. Jones, 1930s, at Eziama Orlu (Isuama Igbo).

 

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  1. Pingback: “In Pursuit of Record Prices”: The Myron Kunin Collection at Sotheby’s New York (11 November 2014) | Bruno Claessens

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