A response to Aniakor’s ‘The Igbo Ijele Mask’

Aniakor begins by analogising the Ijele mask to the elephant as the most powerful in the animal kingdom and their most revered mask as well as the dignity and grace that elephants possess being a positive reflection of the Ijele. Another reason the Ijele mask is so highly regarded is due to it rarity, whilst other masks are presented regularly at festivals the Ijele only appears every 25 years at special occasions such as the ‘yam festival’ which praises the gods for the most popular food in Nigeria and Ghana.

For the most part, Igbo masks represent attributes of humans, animals and spirits rather than entity the as a whole but the Ijele has the power to unite the people of Igbo through pride of their ancestry hence they refer to the mask as “oke mmuo (mmanwu)” (the great mask and spirit). In addition to the powers of the mask they Igbo also recognise its beauty as a source of greatness. They have a specific criteria for what they consider aesthetically pleasing the first of which returns to their respect for the animal kingdom. The pattern on a guinea fowls’ feather inspires the surface decorations of the Ijele, the image below shows the specked pattern which is said to never wash away no matter how hard it is rained on. The price of art is also very important as the wealth of a person who can afford to buy great art reflects personal achievement. Therefore, art which is heavily embellished and is grand in size is considered beautiful. This is why the Ijele is a great piece of Igbo art.

I was surprised at how expensive the Ijele is to make, with the cloth pieces alone costing over $3600! The Igbo sense of community and belief in the beauty of the Ijele is reflected in the fact that they spend years fundraising together so that they can eventually afford to create their own mask.  From what I have learnt from the article and my own research I would have to say that whilst the Ijele mask is a spectacle to behold, both in terms of its size and grandeur, it’s significance to the Igbo communities must reflect most on their religious beliefs as it does not seem plausible to think that a community would regard something so highly for its looks alone.

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