“The Igbo Ijele mask”, Chike C. Aniakor.

For me this article brought out interesting issues about the role of the Ijele mask as art in Igbo society. The Ijele mask is a very large and visually elaborate piece of work and has great social power as a symbol of the power of Igbo culture. However the mask is only seen every 25 years, meaning that its power lies as much in its being hidden as in the visual impact of the mask, which includes sculpture, engraving and cloth panels. This initially seems strange as it is hugely costly and time consuming to make. You might think the artists and the people who invested in the art would wish for the fruits of their labour to be on display, to enhance their reputations and not have it gathering dust for 25 years. However the way the mask is used points to a view of ‘art’ not as a product of an individual talent, to be circulated and displayed publicly like in the UK, but instead as part of life. The mask seems less like a ‘work of art’ than a social event. The display would probably be talked about in the same way as any big social or political event that happens as rarely as every 25 years, like royal weddings or political assassinations, with people reminiscing about a particular masquerade, remembering what they were doing on that day or using their communities’ masquerades as one-upmanship on other communities.  Additionally, acknowledgement of the individual creator behind the artwork, which is so important in Europe for the authenticity of the work and to help the art world survive, is less important as works are commissioned to be made by craft families, whose skill is put down to generations of artistic activity. The importance of the mask is in the visual performance and how this channels the community’s spirits and ancestors, making the art active, and not the passive creation of a talented individual.


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