The Igbo Ijele Mask

In preparation for the week’s readings I read the article about the Igbo Ijele mask by Chike Aniakor. He describes what the mask looks like physically, and also what its physicality represents. He also describes how it is made. What it is made of, where it is made, the length of time it takes to make and the people who are commissioned to make it.

I have seen the Ijele mask, or a copy of it in the London Horniman museum as well as seeing photos of it before. Even though I’d seen it I didn’t know much about it, so I found this article interesting.

In terms of the way it looks, I had always found the models of people to be slightly incongruent with the rest of the mask. They didn’t look the same as other African models or carvings of people I’d seen. Without consciously thinking about it, I had the idea that they were something of a modern add on, which I suppose shows I made the assumption that the rest of the mask was an old tradition, and that this masked performance was just done in remembrance of “old times” as it were, purely just a tradition.

The article showed me how the Ijele mask is a tradition in that it is something that happens every 25 years, and the makers of it are all part of the same craft tradition. The article did not mention when the Ijele mask first came to be among the Igbo. It is not something that is done every 25 years just because this is something that has always been done. At the end the article explained that it was, “ultimately an artistic projection of the Igbo ideal of achievement, authority and status.”

The beginning of the article shows how the mask is an artistic expression of the Igbo ideal. It states that in the past, the mask could have been used at celebrations of the King, and also how the mask performs to music that is called music of the kings.  I thought this would make sense as it could have been a way of honouring the King, being the ideal of achievement, authority and status. The author also hints that the mask gives a confirmation of the Igbo people; a confirmation that their lives have meaning, which in turn gives them meaning. As well as dramatizing attributes of humans, ancestors and animals, it incarnates their ancestors who were given their land and shown how to work it. I thought this could give the sense of providence in people’s lives which would give them a base from which to derive meaning.

Although the mask can only be afforded by affluent Igbo communities, when it is time for the mask to perform, everyone can get involved in enjoying the spectacle. Even though everyone may not possess themselves the Igbo ideal they can still feel a part of Igbo by being involved in the Ijele mask performance. The models represent people in everyday Igbo life, their history, other designs show the wealth and prestige to be found in parts of Igbo culture, and then there are masks that represent the spirit world. I thought that having an artistic expression and performance of what it means to be Igbo is an effective way of giving confirmation to the Igbo people who took part of who they are. Confirmation of who you are allows you to be that person.

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