This janiform mask erupts into two pairs of animal horns to demonstrate the power, fertility, and even graceful beauty of the otherworld. Yet the horns also tell us that the 'soul stuff' within the head must be made manifest.
Artist: Unknown Capmask: wood, leather, horns, paint, basketry Height: 21.2 in. (54 cm) Unknown Site: Bokiland, Cross River, Nigeria, Africa Location: Carlo Monzino Collection, Lugano, Switzerland
While sometimes called a headdress, this Cross River artifact is technically a 'cap mask.' 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 the face is also covered by fabric (with holes for seeing), the total effect is that of an exceptionally tall creature with a long neck and an extraordinary head. What is represented is a spirit or an ancestor in 'human' form, who has symbolically appeared among the villagers. Since the skin of this mask is a light brown rather than black and the features are refined, it probably represents a female. She is double-headed and facing in opposite 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 wooden sculpture underneath. The skilled artist has added here a pair of ibex or wild goat horns to each head and has taken the liberty to reverse the natural direction of these horns, keeping them from overlapping in an awkward way while achieving an image of exceptional grace and harmony.
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. 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 southeastern Nigeria these rites are assisted by so-called 'entertainment' associations. These are dance groups, distinguished by sex, social role, and 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 gives birth, and so on.
Each group owns a sacred mask whose name is the name of the group, following a totemic pattern wherein a sacred animal's name is that of its clan. On certain occasions, the group's best dancer dresses appropriately, attaching noise-making jingles and feathers, and then dons the mask to imitate a divinity from the otherworld. 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 the present event to an age-old pattern in which the gods themselves participated.
The janiform mask seen here tells us that at least some of these gods are 'two-faced.' Perhaps this can be better understood by considering 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. Susan Blier explains that a major motif of the Cross River masquerades is that of 'Beauty and the Beast'? the principals being danced usually at different times, but making their impact as a pas de deux by the end of the ritual year. 'Beauty' is presented 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: 'wealth, status, enterprise, culture, social harmony, peace, and similar societal ideals' as opposed to 'hot-headedness, nature (rather than culture), lack of enterprise, and other traits potentially detrimental to society' (7-8). The mask shown here is polar and may depict this basic 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.
Although skin-covered masks are found only in Nigeria and Cameroon, they are related to the worldwide pattern of honoring the head, and the four horns of this mask 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 imagined to be an expression of the head, like hair. Moses is a classic case. Exodus 34:29 reads in the modern-day Jerusalem Bible: 'The skin on his face was radiant after speaking with Yahveh.' But Jerome, in his fifth-century Latin translation, the Vulgate, recorded that Moses' 'face was horned' (cornuta)? since the Hebrew verb garan can actually mean 'to be horned' as well as 'to send forth beams.' Most scholars today believe that Jerome simply 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 debate arose around this odd iconography was probably due to the fact that horns are age-old animal symbols of power and fertility? which Moses did indeed possess, in the more civilized human form of religious authority and creativity.
In classical Greece, horns were understood to be congealed manifestations of the sacred 'moisture' within the head. Democritus wrote: '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). Since this heady sacred moisture was also procreative, horns were associated with sexuality. (In fact, male animals do use their horns as 'sexual weapons' to ward off competing males during mating season.) The Greeks referred to a man's penis as his 'horn,' and today one hears frustrated youths complain of being 'horny,' although the sacred source of this term is no longer recognized. We can recognize it, however, and can also consider that our 'beastly' animal nature really should be made manifest in some way, visibly 'congealed' in the real world.
An art historian once remarked that he found the realism of the skin-covered masks of the Cross River region 'almost embarrassing' (cited by Nicklin, 14). He may have been referring to the head-hunting 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, one is certainly confronted by the embarrassing fact of being 'two-faced.' After all, we are nice to persons we cannot stand, say the opposite of what we mean, 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 shadow: the rejected contents of the personal unconscious that lie 'behind' the ego, as if we had another face.
The raucous danced masquerades of Basel and New Orleans and the carnival of Rio de Janeiro are other collective attempts to deal with the problem by way of an annual catharsis. It is time, however, to deal with the shadow problem at a higher level? namely, as individuals. Then we discover for a fact what the mask tells us symbolically, that we are both Beauty and the Beast, both spirit and nature. As in the fairy tale, these two sides of ourselves should marry.
Blier, Suzanne Preston. 'Beauty and the Beast: A Study in Contrasts.' Exhibit catalog for Tribal Arts Gallery Two. New York, 1976.
MacCulloch, J. A. 'Horns.' In The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 9. Edinburgh, 1910.
Nicklin, Keith. 'Nigerian Skin-Covered Masks.' African Arts 12/3 (1974): 8ff.
Onians, Richard Broxton. The Origins of European Thought (1951). Salem, 1987.