Angas Abrus Seed Mask
- Tribe: Angas
- Origin: Nigeria
- Approx Age: Early 20th Century
- Materials: Plant fibre and Abrus seeds
- Ref. Number: 1004
A really stunning example of an Angas Abrus seed mask from Nigeria. Provenance: Ex Seward Kennedy Collection.
These masks are uncommon and until very recently they were identified as being from the Koro people of Nigeria. The red abrus seeds (Abrus precatorius) which are very poisonous, were meticulously threaded and attached to the plant fibre structure in rows forming a wonderful overall visual.
Cotton tufts are hanging at the ends of strands of abrus seeds around the base of the mask. A friend of mine talked to a man from Nigeria familiar with these masks and was told “that every row had to have an odd number of seeds, and all the rows added together had to make an odd number as well.” I didn’t count the seeds to see if this was true, I’ll just take his word.
Even though constructed from plant fibre and seeds, this mask has a strong sculptural form and a powerful presence in a room.
“This dance mask comes from the Ngass, or Angas, people located in the Plateau State region of northeastern Nigeria. The mask is made of plant fibers woven together and decorated with red abrus seeds and tufts of cotton. The mask is meant to cover the entire head and was likely worn with a billowing cloth robe to complete the masquerade. A mask such as this was possibly used as part of a masquerade for a men’s secret society. The design of this mask and use of red abrus seeds for decoration is extremely similar to the masks used for the Jankai masquerade by the Hausa and other groups within the Plateau State. Jankai is a men’s secret society, and the name is a Hausa word meaning “Red Head”. Jankai appears at harvest-time dressed in a red helmet mask and billowing cloth garment.” – Spurlock Museum
Abrus precatorius seeds contain one of the most potent toxins known to man. However, because of the seed’s outer hard coat the vast majority of ingestion’s cause only mild symptoms and typically results in complete recovery. If the seeds are crushed and then ingested, more serious toxicity, including death, can occur.
Oral ingestion of whole seeds often does not produce serious illness since the shell protects the toxin from digestion. Poisonings are more likely in the fall because new crops with immature seeds have a softer shell. Conversely, older seeds have brittle shells and also a greater potential for toxin exposure to the gastrointestinal tract. Chewing, grinding, or drilling the seed disrupts the hard shell, exposing more abrin to the GI tract. Most effects of this toxin are limited to local GI symptoms, as digestive enzymes destroy the toxin and limit systemic absorption.