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  • Warrior Masking, Youth Culture, and Gender RolesMasks and History in Aro Ikeji Festival
  • all photographs by the author unless otherwise noted

Tracing the history of masking traditions in the broader region of southeastern Nigeria and adjacent areas of southwestern Cameroon may seem like an exercise in futility. Formal properties of masks, masking genres, names of individual and types of masks, and various combinations of elements such as carved masks or headdresses, costumes, and hand-held objects may seem to appear in a bewildering mix that changes from place to place and even coexists within the same community. Similar complexity can be observed when we examine the music and dance that accompany masquerade performances and the institutions that govern them. The picture that emerges can easily give the impression of intractable chaos. In an earlier article, I suggested a big-picture view of this complexity by tracing masking genres from the Cross to the Niger Rivers (Bentor 2002). A major conclusion of that study is that a spatial analysis of the current distribution of masking genres and styles is only the tip of an iceberg whose larger mass lies in the depth of time. Only a diachronic analysis of the history of population movements, intergroup relations, trade, pilgrimage, and other such factors can begin to explain the current map. In other words, what we need is to move from a "geography of style" to a "history of genres." A similar attempt was made by Ute Röschenthaler for the area east of the Cross River and Cameroon (Röschenthaler 2006, 2011). In this paper, I attempt to trace the history of a single genre (or a group of closely related genres) of masking throughout the larger region to try and tease out the history of warrior masquerade traditions as an example of such cultural dynamics. I will do so through the lens of one locality, the historically important center of the Aro people in Arochukwu in current Abia State of Nigeria. A critical part of my argument is that, while historical perspective is crucial to the understanding of the present, a synchronic view of the way masking performances are done today provides important clues as to that history. Moreover, the transformation of warrior masking in Arochukwu from an expression of masculine warrior ethos to a vehicle of age associations during the colonial and postcolonial periods has echoes in similar processes in the larger region. It proves that artistic practices are sensitive barometers of social and political changes.

The area of southeastern Nigeria and the adjacent parts of western Cameroon is known for its cultural diversity. The region is home to speakers of several language groups, ethnicities, and social formations. Today, there are over a dozen ethnic groups of various sizes in this area, the largest being the Igbo, who number well over 20 million people. However, it is an open question as to when a distinct sense of ethnicity emerged in this area. As the prevailing social order is that of small-scale, noncentralized village-groups, each area and even village-group possesses distinct cultural patterns. In the absence of large-scale kingdoms or empires, each village-group is free to adopt and adapt new patterns either from a neighboring place or from far away. This is reflected in the great variety of artistic traditions and masquerade genres.

The Aro people emerged by the eighteenth century as the result of the coming together of several ethnic elements including Igbo, Ibibio, and groups from the other side of the Cross River, known as Akpa by the Aro people. They established the new community of Arochukwu following a war known as the Ibibio War. Aro oral tradition relates that the area between the Cross and Enyong Rivers, close to today's meeting points of Abia, Akwa Ibom, and Cross River states, was a no-man's-land sparsely populated by Ibibio and Igbo speaking people. Different Aro segments argue strenuously about the specific details and sequence of events that led to the war and its consequences. One version claims that Nnachi, an Igbo medicine man from Edda to the north, wished to gain control of this region. He secured the help of...


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pp. 34-45
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