Description

While sometimes called a headdress, this is technically a "cap mask" in Cross River studies of African art. It is worn on top of the head of a masquerading dancer (thus the basketry cushion at its base) and held in place by a string passing under the chin. Since the dancer's body is covered by a fabric gown and his or her face is also covered by fabric (with holes for seeing), the total effect is that of an exceptionally tall being with a long neck and an extraordinary head. What is represented is a supernatural being, a spirit or an ancestor in "human" form, who has symbolically appeared among the villagers. Since the skin of our mask is a light brown rather than black and the features are refined, this is probably a female. She is double-headed and facing in oppo- site directions. Although we are observing the mask from the side -- in a performance, one head faces forward and the other behind -- we are still able to see the black curvilinear design on the forehead of one head and the triangles-within-rectangles designs on the cheeks. These decorations point to the traditional Boki practice of tattooing, now found only on old people, and are examples of "secret writing" (nsibidi) only vaguely understood today. The forehead circles probably mean "love" in some way, the other marks suggest a "leopard" cult. The black circular keloids at the temples of both heads are also an artistic vestige of an old practice of scarification colored with carbon. On this mask, the circles are actually raised disks inserted to help keep in place a precisely cut, shaped, and carefully dried leather that covers a invisible wooden sculpture underneath. The skilled artist has added here a pair of ibox or wild goat horns to each head [find out what animal in fact; this is a guess] and has taken the liberty to reverse the natural direction of these horns -avoiding their overlapping in an awkward way while achieving an image of exceptional grace and harmony.

Cultural Context

West African religions generally agree that a single Supreme Deity created the world. But this Being is more or less distant, and so the cults are directed primarily to the lesser divine spirits who control natural phenomena like the weather and oversee cultural phenomena such as hunting and farming; these spirits are also concerned with the expected transitions and unexpected crises of individual life. And then there are the ancestors. Variously conceived, they tend to be extraordinary members of the African community who have died and gone to an Afterlife very closely related to the spirits. Ancestors too can help people in this world when called upon. But calling upon supernatural beings of whatever sort requires ritual action, conducted by priests and diviners -- and among the Boki of southeast Nigeria these rites are assisted by so-called "entertainment" associations. These are dance groups distinguished by sex, by social role, and by age; they perform at harvest celebrations, at puberty initiations, and especially today at funerals. For example, the Nkang are a male corporation of proven warriors; the Bekarum are a male association of hunters; while the Egbege are a female group who perform primarily at initiation rites for girls at puberty, when a woman give birth, etc.Each group owns a sacred mask-- the name of which is the name of the group (this is a totemic pattern wherein a sacred animal's name is that of its olan), And on certain occasions, their best dancer dresses appropriately, attaching noisemaking jingles and feathers, and then dons the mask to imitate a divinity from the other World. This apparently simple act in the ritual context of a believing community "re-presents" the god and makes that otherwise invisible and inaccessible divinity visible and immediate, able to hear the prayers and ready to intervene. As the dancer performs his or her mime, accompanied by musical instruments played by the other members of the group, an entire myth may be enacted evoking or calling forth for those assembled the very "beginning of time" -- when the first person was born, when a youth became an adult initially, when the first war was fought or the first human being died in some mythic story. In this way, the African masquerade gives meaning to what is happening today by connecting that event -- even a disturbing one -- to an age-old pattern in which the/gods themselves participated.Our mask tells us that at least some of these gods are "twofaced." Perhaps we can understand this by way of a different type of Cross River mask called a "helmet-mask." Hollowed out of a log, fitting over the head and resting upon the shoulders, it is also skin-covered and very frequently janiform. One face is male and is always colored dark brown or black, the other face is female and always of a pale or light brown color. Keith Nicklin, the ethnologist who has specialized in these mask types, notes with disappointment: "I was unable to discover any further explanation for this polarity of color on a sexual basis, other than that of black as being 'strong' or 'powerful' and white as 'weak'" (14). But neighboring tribes claimed actually not to know very much about their own tradi- tions and suggested Nioklin consult European books! If we consult Susan Blier, she tell us something else, that a major motif of the Cross River masquerades is that of "Beauty and the Beast" -- the principles being danced usually at different times, but making their impact as a pas de deux by the end of the ritual year. "Beauty" is imaged as a beautiful female mask on a figure of grace and usually slow movements; "Beast" is a male mask disfigured by leprosy or otherwise grotesque and is danced chaotically. Blier interprets them as competing social attitudes in the African group with an obvious didactic function favoring acceptable "feminine" attitudes. She also sees these danced figures as manifestations of the opposed supernatural realities that West Africans must deal with the helpful spirit or ancestor as well as the wandering ghost who causes trouble. Our own mask is polar, of course, and may depict this basic religious conflict by way of two heads facing in opposite directions; or perhaps the drama is shown by the "beauty" of the female faces and the "beastly" character of the horns.

Archetypal Commentary

While skin-covered masks are found only in Nigeria and Cameroon, they are related nevertheless to the worldwide pattern of honoring the head. Their Janus-faced shape takes its name from another culture, of course; while the four horns of our picture belong not only to quaternity symbolism but also to the universal symbolism of horns. Horns are not actually a part of the human body, yet they are often associated with the human head as an expression of the head, like hair. Moses is a classic case in our own culture. Exodus 34.29 reads in the Jerusalem Bible today: "the skin on his face was radiant. after speaking with Yahwah." But Jerome, in his great Latin translation, the Vulgate, recorded that Moses' "face was horned" (cornuta) -- since the Hebrew verb garan can actually mean "to send forth beams" as well as "to be horned." Most scholars today believe the saintly translator made a mistake, but it was one with consequence: Gothic and Renaissance artists, Michelangelo among them, sculpted the Old Testament hero sprouting small horns. That no great debate arose around this odd iconography probably was due to the fact that horns are age-old animal symbols of power and fertility -- which Moses did indeed possess, in the more civilized form of religious authority and creativity.Since the Stone Age, horns have been important to human beings. The "Venus of Laussel" hold aloft her horn for a hunting culture that buried its dead surrounded by horns, while the subsequent agricultural period continued to value the horns of the bull in particular -- they were so obviously powerful and dangerous yet attached to a body whose fertility was just as conspicuous. A cornucopia or "Horn of Plenty" emerged as a significant symbol of abundance in Latin culture while scientists of the time hypothesized that horns on an animal were concentrated out-crops of the life-substance normally contained within the head: "The moisture, being continuous and flowing in, thrusts out the parts in front of it and the emerging liquid outside the body becomes hard, the air congealing it and turning it to horn" (Onians, 237). Christianity inherited an appreciation for horns since it was the horn of a ram, antelope, or ibex that was blown ritually at the Jewish New Year as the "Voice" of Yahweh; it followed that the "trumpet" of the archangel Gabriel sounding the Second coming of Christ would be no brass instrument --as artists would have it -- but this same shofar (see Revelation 11). Nevertheless, the Christian "Devil" was derived from Pan, a Greco-Roman goat god with horns which therefore had to be suppressed. it followed in ascetic Christendom that when one felt sinfully concupiscent or "lustful" -- one felt "horny."An art historian once remarked that the "realism" of the Skincovered masks of the Cross River region "is sometimes almost embarrassing" (Nicklin, 14). He may have been referring to the head-hunting practice that scholars take to be the origin of this art form or may have been reacting to something else in the masks that we as "civilized" human beings would rather not see about ourselves. In the case of janiform heads, we are certainly confronted by the embarrassing fact of being "two-faced." We are nice to persons we cannot stand, say the opposite of what we moan, present in public -- and even to ourselves in private -- a false face that has nothing to do with how we actually are. In other words, the conflict of "Beauty and the Beast" in the Boki masquerade is just the African version of that universal problem of the personal Shadow. The raucous danced masquerades of Basel, New Orleans, and the carnival of Rio de Janeiro are collective attempts to deal with it. Yet at bottom we are dealing here with something even more serious; to borrow the title of Joseph Campbell's masterwork, our artifact is one of the "Masks of God." We are being shown that the deity too is duplicitous, double-dealing, has a Shadow. With little thanks from otherwise thoughtful people, Jung called attention to this polarity within the Judeo-Christian image of God. Indeed, the altar of Yahweh in ancient Israel displayed at its corners four home; at the dedication of the temple of this otherwise compassionate Lord Solomon slaughtered there, we are told, twenty-two thousand oxen and one hundred and twenty thousand sheep (1 Kings 8.63). The sneer numbers of this "dedication festival" remind us of the more recent slaughter of eight million Jews - and suddenly we find ourselves impaled upon the "horns of a dilemma" which goes far beyond embarrassment.But these are just ideas, if they are not "realized." If we do not become conscious of them and integrate them into a new worldview, if they are not communicated with feeling in a written word difficult to deny, if they are not enacted in some change of behavior that everyone can experience, they remain "creative life substance" within the head and have not yet congealed in the open air as "horn." Jung wrote at the very beginning of his autobiographical statement Memories, Dreams, Reflections: "My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole" (3). The horns of our picture display their beastliness -- both raw animal instinctuality and harmony with nature -- with which we need to come to terms personally and transpersonally; and yet they show us at the same time what it means to actualize a creative impulse. Being fourfold and symbolic of wholeness as well, these horns are a veritable cornucopia of meaning.