Igbo Mask

The word “Mmanwu” in Igbo means “spirits of the dead”. It is the combination of two Igbo words “mmuo” or “maa” which means spirit and “onwu” which means death.

Igbo Ekpe society mask

Tribe: Igbo

Origin: Igboland Nigeria

Approx Age: mid 20th century

Materials: Wood

Dimensions cm: 17 x 12

Ref. Number: 1816


A lovely small and old Igbo mask from Nigeria. These masks are sewn to a hood and worn over the head, it doesn’t follow the contours of the face yet protrudes on the front as in the photo at the bottom of the page. Very well worn, white/cream polychrome paint to the face, a red-painted band above the forehead and black paint or pigment used on the coiffure.

Provenance: Ex-Maurice Joy. London


Mmanwu is a traditional masquerade of the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria. They are performed only by males in exclusive secret societies and involve the use of elaborate, colourful costumes that are meant to invoke ancestral spirits.[1 Masquerade traditions have a varied range of purposes that span from performing elements of epic drama derived from community cosmology and lore, ushering in new months and seasons, honouring totems and ancestral spirits, enactments of parables or myths, with entertainment and community building serving as a consistent commonality. In the past masquerades also bore judicial, social regulatory, and even policing powers, however, these functions have decreased in modern times.

The Igbo use thousands of masks, which incarnate unspecified spirits or the dead, forming a vast community of souls. The outstanding
characteristic of the many Igbo masks is that they are painted chalk white, the colour of the spirit. Masked dancers wore extremely elaborate
costumes (sometimes ornamented with mirrors) and often their feet and hands were covered. With their masks, the Igbo oppose beauty to
bestiality, the feminine to the masculine, black to white. The masks, of wood or fabric, are employed in a variety of dramas: social satires,
sacred rituals (for ancestors and invocation of the gods), initiation, second burials, and public festivals, which now include Christmas and
Independence Day. 


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