Image: African Mask E76274

African Mask E76274

Carved and painted wooden mask. Ibibio people of Nigeria. Such masks, once used in social control ceremonies, are now used for entertainment and education.

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The Ibibio people, now predominantly Christian, live in south-eastern Nigeria at the margin of the Niger Delta. The thick forest of their homeland consists of a high proportion of palm trees. Traditionally palm oil extracted and sold to the outsiders, was an important element of Ibibio economy. The people of high rank in exclusive positions of dominance held the largest parts of the forest and its palm trees – a great source of wealth. Partially through ritual means, they reinforced respect for the high ranks and established social order. The rituals involved a symbolic sharing of wealth, but also intimidation of common people to protect the privileged ones. The masks, some with movable jaws were part of this ritualised ‘theatre’ of social dominance. The ritual, however, had spiritual dimensions where some masks and carved figures represented good spirits. The dark-coloured or black masks - idiok - symbolised the evil, immoral souls of people condemned to perpetual suffering as ghosts. Those impersonating idiok spirits, danced at night, performing their intimidating horror-like show with wild erratic movements, intended to scare the spectators and therefore assure their obedience. 

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Carl Bento
© Australian Museum

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