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  • How Masks TravelAesthetics, Trade, War, and Authority in Eastern Nigeria, an Introduction
  • Sidney Littlefield Kasfir (bio)

In the area described by the Lower Niger, the Benue, and the Cross Rivers, a unique combination of circumstances made possible the mobility of masquerades between 1700 and the present. Behind this mobility lay, in the Cross River region and near it, the sophisticated trade networks in (at various times) slaves, palm oil, salt, cloth and ivory developed and managed by both the Calabar and Niger Delta traders, and inland, the Arochukwu. Between the Imo and Anambra Rivers lay the highest rural population density in sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout the much larger eastern region, masquerades were used to impose (and sometimes depose) authority, oil the wheels of trade, and give material substance to spiritual belief. Therefore in a region where masking served political, aesthetic, and economic ends and the density of both population and trade networks made almost everything commodifiable, masks traveled. Much of the way in which these exchanges took place is buried in local histories, and one of the aims of this group of essays is to demonstrate the recurrences and variations of the material objects and ensembles which were, and are, simultaneously commodities of a very special kind, things possessing ritual and political power, and aesthetic expressions of authority and its transgression. The authority of the Ekpe (Ngbe) society, marked publicly by its mask enactments and privately by its complex of ritual privileges made available to initiated members, was felt throughout the region that is now southeastern Nigeria and southwest Cameroon. Although it is commonly said that Ekpe functioned as a de facto government in the absence of centralized political power, Malcolm Ruel (1969) has given it a slightly different interpretation, arguing that its primarily role is as a sanction, formalizing and enforcing community authority. However it is seen, its mystical aspect was fed by both secret and public visual display and performance, the subject of some of the essays appearing here. In the otherwise egalitarian communities of the region, typically managed by councils of elders, Ekpe provided a formal authority structure. As it traveled northward into Igbo and later Idoma lands, however, it was the masquerade and its performance, but not usually the complex ritual structure and graded levels of membership, that was transferred. In central Idoma, for example, Ekpe incorporated the Ogongo masquerade, a cognate of the Igbo Okonko. The latter was a carved whiteface mask worn with a white knit body stocking, while the pair of Ekpe performers wore appliqué costumes with a peplum and small fabric "leopard tail." The fact that the Idoma word for leopard is eje, not ekpe, makes the masquerade's provenance clear. Besides Ekpe, a series of warrior masquerades also originated in the Cross River region and filtered northward into Ogoja and Idoma as Ogrinye or Oglinye (Talbot 1926, Kasfir 1979, 1988). Clans such as the Ohafia Igbo trained their own professional soldiers through a stringent set of requirements and a code of aggressive behavior which spread with its own masking practice: first dancing with enemy skulls or jawbones and later, when the pax Britannica shut down local warfare, with carved mask headdresses. This too, like Ekpe, thrived most successfully in the absence of a central political authority. Such masquerade groups were composed of young men (formerly fighters, now morphing into symbolic warriors), who remained under the watchful eye of the traditional governing councils of senior elders who in turn deployed them as "policemen." However, given their youthful hubris, the elders' control was mostly nominal and they in fact existed on both sides of the law as self-proclaimed vigilantes (Kasfir 1979). In this form they are the precursors of today's transgressive behavior by young men's masquerades in the region (Pratten 2008).

Jordan Fenton's essay in this collection focuses upon the masquerade societies known as Ukwa, Nnabo, and Agaba, which operate in contemporary Calabar town. An important part of his analysis links their forms and ideas with much older and now [End Page 15] defunct local warrior-related societies, but also societies from elsewhere. These elements are combined conceptually in what he terms "currencies," which enable the exchange of...


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pp. 15-17
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