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  • Expressive CurrenciesArtistic Transactions and Transformations of Warrior-Inspired Masquerades in Calabar
  • Jordan A. Fenton (bio)

The Ukwa performance started when members entered the dance arena carrying their long swords. Most members wore red, black, and yellow sashes neatly fitted over their white long shirts (Fig. 1). Wrappers were elegantly tied around their waists. The warriors paraded in synchronized and choreographed motions, until suddenly breaking formation to engage in aggressive and combative fencing bouts. The duels gave way to the Ukwa version of Mkpókpóró, a masquerader dressed in a loosely hanging black gown, adorned with an animal skull on its crest (Figs. 2, 14). The ominous character moved fluidly as if floating from one direction to another. Mkpókpóró serves as Ukwas emissary, clearing the dance arena for members and the next act: Okpon-Ibuot.

Loosely translated as "Mr. and Mrs. Big Head" Okpon-Ibuot is a male/female pair of masqueraders known for their performance dramatizing the social and sexual tensions between husband and wife (Figs. 3-4). The male masker donned a Janus helmet mask, finished with commercial paints and decorated with vulture feathers inserted into holes located on the crown of the mask. He was dressed in a loosely fitting fiber net costume and wielded a metal spear in his right hand. His female counterpart also wore a painted wooden Janus helmet mask. Three colorful plumes were inserted into the top of her head. Her dress, much more ornate and decorative, featured a foreign silk wrapper fixed to the àkàsì (a locally made cane hoop) tied to the masker's hips.1

During the performance, the male character enticed members of the audience to caress his wife. After a brave viewer took him up on the offer, Mr. Big Head became enraged, protecting his wife by chasing and threating the violator. Meanwhile, Mrs. Big Head's choreography seductively displayed her sexuality for her husband. In response, Mr. Big Head assumed the role of an overly controlling, envious husband. The male/female dance drama continued in this way for about forty-five minutes. The dance is locally interpreted as a satire of marriage; the choreography is meant to stimulate reflection on issues of jealously, trust, emotional turmoil, sexual tension, and permissiveness. The display was performed by an Efik and Efut Ukwa faction based in Calabar as part of a commissioned play during a funeral in Akpabuyo, a little less than ten miles east of the city.2

Crucial to this essay is that the commissioned dance duo, Okpon-Ibuot, was not an original part of Ukwa, but a recent incorporation into the warrior society. A puzzling yet important question is why did a war dance integrate a parody of love into a traditionally aggressive and menacing herbalist society? And how did such an inclusion influence Nnabo, a much more recent warrior-inspired society analyzed in the following pages, to become more visually pungent with its imagery and embrace a more violent demeanor during performance?

In seeking answers to this line of questioning, the recent innovations of the two prominent warrior-related societies in Calabar today, Ukwa and its more junior successor Nnabo, as well as other permutations developed by youths, will be placed within a broader historical narrative. With this I extend art historian Sidney Kasfir's work on Idoma warrior societies and her proposed historical model charting the change, dissemination, and survival of "concrete" sculptural forms (namely masks) of specific secret societies (Kasfir 1984: 186) to include a broader performative approach. In so doing, this analysis includes songs sung, instruments employed, dress, symbolism of costumes, added ornamentation, and dance choreographies when appropriate. The goal is to demonstrate the reasons why and to what ends have Calabar masquerade associations invented and reinvented themselves.3 In the end, I present a [End Page 18] model of cultural reinvention of warrior societies in Calabar that may prove useful in postulating why African masquerade arts so readily change, and why this art form is one of the most artistically effervescent on the continent today. In the end, this article provides a microcosm of cultural reinvention of warrior societies in Calabar, linking this pattern of change to that...


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