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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Mask: Beke

Photo: Paul Macapia

Mask: Beke


Seeing a mask in a museum is an encounter that is almost the opposite of its original intent. Still and quiet, stripped of costume and character, the mask is a remnant of a dense aesthetic experience that erupted with sounds, smells, dancing, music, acting, talking and spirited exchanges between the audience and the concealed masqueraders. Among the Afikpo of Nigeria, groups of over one hundred masked, spirited beings engage in vivid encounters with audiences who pay attention to their messages. In the Seattle Art Museum's galleries, Afikpo masks don't stand alone. Nearly two dozen masks have been restored to provide as many links to the original masked plays and parades as possible.  Through this coordination, audiences become closer to another culture's way of exploring beauty, ugliness, foolishness, humor, secrecy and the value of a rich season of theater that touches all the senses.
Wood with raffia backing
9 x 5 x 6 in. (22.9 x 12.7 x 15.2 cm)
Gift of Simon Ottenberg, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum
Provenance: Collected by Simon Ottenberg, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Washington, in Afikpo, Nigeria between September 1959 and June 1960
Photo: Paul Macapia
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

We are dealing with an aesthetic that emphasizes action, in which beauty and ugliness, delight and foolishness, come out of doing rather than being.

Simon Ottenberg, 1973

Masks for a Play

Photo: Simon Ottenberg
Okumpka musicians and chorus, Mgbom village, Afikpo Village Group, Nigeria, 1960
An Afikpo play, called Okumpka, is a showcase for sophisticated humor. It is put on by the community for the community and offers direct comments about specific persons who have faced real situations but not fared well.  The play names names, exposing foibles in satirical songs that direct attention to the actions of particular people.  Because the players wear masks, they turn into mma, a type of spirit, and thereby have the freedom to be critical.  In just one play, up to fourteen short original songs and skits might turn attention to henpecked husbands, men who behave as if they are "rabbits of the night," men who are stingy, leaders who should speak up about issues but don't, leaders who take advantage of others, and men who don't act as men should but as foolish women. The powerful opening act of the play is the appearance of an impressive mass of costumed men who proceed into the village center and sit down there.  Audiences crowd in to listen and watch for hours, as songs with explicit lyrics unfold and highly skilled maskers perform related skits. Humor keeps people tuned in, as songs point out mistakes people have made, and the audience watches as the person mentioned reacts to being portrayed.
Photo by Beth Mann
Nnade Okumkpa (Senior Leader's Mask), Chukwu Okoro, 2005.42
This mask is known as "father of the Okumkpa play" and is worn by the senior leader. Such a mask is the sign of a powerful masquerade creator and performer.  During plays, this character is the director of skits and songs and narrates the action for hours. The ritual value of this mask is evidenced by the egg shells on the surface.  Eggs are not normal food at Afikpo, but they are placed in shrines and given to diviners.
Photo: Beth Mann
Mask: Opa Nwa, 1953, Chukwu Okoro, 2005.51
Also seen in Njenje, this mask is referred to as a "queen" mask.  Her face is female, and she carries a seated child on her head. During Okumpka, she is often hidden in the center of the crowd of seated performers. Known as a woman who rejects suitor after suitor until she finally relents, she is the center of great attention whenever she gets up to dance. Male performers do their best to be as graceful and delicate as possible in portraying her.
Photo by Beth Mann
Mask: Mkpe, 1953, Chukwu Okoro, 2005.40
Although this mask has goat horns, it is often worn by musicians who don't act as horned animals, but who sit, drum and sing in the chorus during Okumpka.

The Pot of Foolishness

One common skit in the Okumpka play involves a soup or water pot that becomes a trophy for the most foolish person. To begin this highly unusual competition, a masked player comes out to explain why he is the most foolish man of all.  Usually, others disagree with him and step forth to offer their case for why they deserve to be known as the most foolish.  Reasons for being foolish might involve a long chanted story, such as the case of a man who was completely obsessed with his yams.  This man was a farmer, and he worked so hard accumulating yams that he kept fainting for lack of food in places like the market, where no one could figure out why he had passed out. Only his wife was smart enough to know that he needed food, and once she offered it, he ate greedily with both hands.  Play leaders finally decide who has the credentials as the most foolish person, and this person is then allowed to take the soup pot and dance with it. 
Detail of pot in center of Okumpka musicians and chorus, Mgbom village, Afikpo Village Group, Nigeria, 1960
Photo: Simon Ottenberg
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, EEPA 2000-007-00576

The Idea of Participation

"The Afikpo aesthetic carries with it the idea of participation."
--Simon Ottenberg, 1975

Maximum enjoyment of Afikpo masquerades was the prerogative of the audience, which watched each performance with anticipation. They would speculate about who was appearing in which costume, who would be the subject of satire, how far the leader would take his satiric singing, whether the dancers would be interestingly attired, and whether the whole event would maintain its organization and pace.  Exploring Afikpo plays and parades leads to a comparison with a parade with many similar moments of highly charged personalized theater that happens each year in Seattle.
Njenje parade players, Ndibe Village, Igbo peoples, Afikpo Village Group, Nigeria, 1959
Photo: Simon Ottenberg
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, EEPA 2000-007-00477

Serious Foolishness in Seattle

Each year in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, a solstice parade--hosted by the Fremont Arts Council--unveils an array of players who share many qualities with the Afikpo Njenji.  There is no entrance fee or scenery and only natural lighting for the walking skits that tend to be about people and events of which the audience already has some knowledge. The parade is a popular drama for everyone that takes place in the central streets and is met with approval or disapproval from the audience. Fremont paraders generally do not use the same degree of clothing or masks that Afikpo do to transform themselves into spirit forces, but parody is often a highlight, and the most pointed barbs toward politicians and local leaders tend to be delivered by those wearing masks.
The Heat is On, Fremont Solstice Parade, 2006
Jessica C. Levine, 2006

Looking Ugly and Acting Ugly

Photo by Beth Mann
Mask: Okpesu Umuruma, 1953, Chukwu Okoro, 2005.46
Photo by Beth Mann
Mask: Okpesu Umuruma, 1953, Chukwu Okoro, 2005.47
Photo by Beth Mann
Mask: Okpesu Umuruma, 1960, Chukwu Okoro, 2005.48
Photo by Beth Mann
Mask: Okpesu Umuruma, 1960, Chukwu Okoro, 2005.49

Masks for a Parade

Photo: Susan Cole
Mask with Njenje Figure, Africa, Afikpo, Nigeria, 2005.60
Njenje (walkabout) is the name of a parade that involves virtually an entire village's population. It opens the first day of the Dry Season Festival--a time Afikpo say "is our Christmas"--when rich meals, visits and ceremonies prevail.  Preparations require men in their twenties to organize into an age grade, lead the masquerade and assemble elaborate costumes that often involve loans of cloth and jewelry from sisters, wives, lovers and friends who eagerly await the parade. Secrecy from women and uninitiated boys is strictly enforced throughout the dressing process, which adds to the suspense of the audience, which watches players stroll through the village dressed as unmarried girls, Europeans, Muslims and children. How well the men imitate feminine guile in their stride and costume--or suggest the qualities of a schoolteacher, a minister, a lawyer, an office clerk or a white person--is a test of the persuasive skills of the males in the parade.

Opa Mma means "carry-child," and it is often referred to as the "queen" mask, with a motherly face that supports a child on her head.  Each masked player, dressed as an adolescent or young adult female, is adorned with a complex costume that incorporates a headdress with mirrors, multiple cloths, fiber necklaces, plastic waistbands and armbands. These female spirits walk with long strides, carrying canes and occasionally a vodka bottle.
Photo: Paul Macapia
Mask: Beke, 1953, Chukwu Okoro, 2005.32
Mma ji, 1952-53, Chukwu Okoro, 2005.41
Mma ji means "knife-yam" and refers to the top piece, which looks like a knife or machete.  This mask is worn by males from young boys to adult men, who can be costumed as a schoolboy, missionary, Muslim or westernized African.
Photo by Beth Mann
Mask: Acali, Africa, Afikpo, Nigeria, 2005.57
Acali masks are small and have relatively big eyes, making them popular with young boys who have just been initiated. The people who wear them often appear at the end of an Njenje parade and may dress as a male scholar or Muslim.


Sam Irem, former President, Afikpo Organization, Inc., and Simon Ottenberg, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and African Studies, University of Washington, describe Afikpo masquerades
Watch a Njenje performance
For SAM's My Favorite Things series in 2015, Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh discusses SAM's collection of Chukwu Okoro masks and his Igbo heritage.


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, Mar. 31, 2018 - ongoing.
Published ReferencesSeattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures, London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007, pp. 50-51.

Ishikawa, Chiyo, ed. "A Community of Collectors: 75th Anniversary Gifts to the Seattle Art Museum." Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2007, illus. p. 125.

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

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