Igbo-Ukwu Bronze Maskette

This artifact is made of leaded bronze from the region of Igbo-Ukwu, Anambra State, in south-central and southeastern Nigeria, perhaps from the period of the Kingdom of Nri circa the 9th century A.D. The Nri and Aguleri people are in the territory of the Umueri clan who trace their lineage back to the patriarchal king-figure Eri. The Nri and Aguleri and part of the Umueri clan are a cluster of Igbo village groups who trace their origins to a sky-being called Eri.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Nri hegemony in Igboland may go back as far as the 9th century, and royal burials have been unearthed dating to at least the 10th century. Eri, the god-like founder of Nri, is believed to have settled the region around 948 with other related Igbo cultures following in the 13th century.

Burials

After a death, the body of a prominent member of society is placed on a stool in a sitting posture and is clothed in the deceased’s finest garments. Animal sacrifices may be offered, and the dead person is well-perfumed. Burial usually follows within 24 hours of death. In the 21st century, the head of a home is usually buried within the compound of his residence.

Different types of deaths warrant different types of burials. This is determined by an individual’s age, gender, and status in society. For example, children are buried in hiding and out of sight; their burials usually take place in the early mornings and late nights. A simple, untitled man is buried in front of his house, and a simple mother is buried in her place of origin: in a garden or a farm-area that belonged to her father.

In the 21st century, a majority of the Igbo bury their dead in the western way, although it is not uncommon for burials to be practiced in the traditional Igbo ways.

There are only a few known Igbo-Ukwu bronze masks of this similar style, period, and culture that are housed in the archives collection at the British Art Museum. With one exception, their examples don’t have a bird at the top of the head crown of the mask. Although the patina, iconography, and style are identical, the patina of these masks are consistent with the same period, circa 9th century A.D.

The eyes are characterized by a bulged representation. A long nose with broad nostrils, and slightly open protruding mouth and ears are eloquently in line with the side of the eyes. The face of this mask is depicted with a series of linear tribal tattoos or scarifications, typical of facial scarifications initiated by Igbo male cults.

The crown of this mask has four rows of loops, the first row starting from above the forehead of the mask has seven loops. The second row has seven loops. The third row has five loops, missing one at the center, and the fourth row has only five with one missing. The collar of the mask also has a series of loops making eleven in all. These loops may have been used to decorate the crown with beads or feathers ornaments, etc.

The bird has been soldered and attached between the second and fourth row in the center of the mask crown and has circular spiral symbols on the wings and tail identical to the center forehead spiral.

Provenance: The mask was first purchased from an Art Gallery in London, England, during the mid-1950s by an American art collector from northern Illinois, and later sold to a  former C.I.A. agent and art collector who Maxwell Price acquired it from years later.

Circa 9th to 13th century A.D.
Leaded bronze
13 x 5 x 7 in
33 x 13 x 18 cm