Tribal Art Forum

Igbo "Beautiful Maiden" Masks

by John Monroe

I.  Introduction

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of getting to know African art is the process of  "eye sharpening" that happens as you learn more about the material.  Knowledge and experience can open up whole new worlds - it's a matter of learning how to see a particular kind of beauty that isn't readily accessible to someone accustomed to European art. When collectors and dealers refer to this process of eye-training, they generally talk about learning to distinguish the "authentic" from the "fake," with the presupposition that authenticity is also a marker of esthetic quality.   From this perspective, if it's authentic, made by a particular group for its own use, then it's beautiful; if it's fake, made for sale to visitors, then it's kitsch.

This assumption makes me uncomfortable. I prefer to leave open the possibility that there are some excellent pieces made for sale to visitors, and that African creativity can flourish in the contemporary international marketplace just as it once flourished in the narrower colonial one. When I'm deciding on a piece, my main concern is not "is this sculpture authentic," but rather "is this sculpture beautiful."

At the same time, however, it's impossible to avoid the question of  "authenticity" if you are interested in collecting fine pieces of African art.  This is true for both esthetic and financial reasons.  First, the esthetic.  In my experience, I've found that the pieces African people have made for their own use generally tend to be finer and more subtle than those made for sale to visitors. Second, the financial.  Authentic pieces, for reasons I'll try to explain a bit, fetch far higher prices than pieces deemed to be inauthentic. Therefore, knowing how to recognize authenticity is crucial to being an informed buyer. How, then, do you tell what's "authentic" from what's not?  This is a complicated question to answer in a general way.  There are certain basic principles (you can see a list of them at David Norden's website), but they are not the whole story. In addition to general rules of thumb, you need specific knowledge about the particular type of object that interests you. What I'll try to do here is provide a clearer sense of how to assess authenticity by looking closely at three examples of a single type of object, the Igbo Agbogho Mmwo (or "Beautiful Maiden") mask.

II.  Two Masks

A few years ago, my wife and I decided it might be fun to own a piece of traditional African sculpture. We had read an article in the Village Voice, describing a warehouse in Chelsea that serves as a distribution hub for art importers from Africa (often called "runners"), and we decided that it would be a good place to find something.  After visiting a number of stalls, and being led to storage units by individual dealers, each crammed with tribal objects of all descriptions, we saw our first Mmwo mask, though we didn't realize at the time what it was.   A protracted bargaining session ensued; we finally bought the mask for $250.00.

The man who sold it to us, a young trader just getting his start, made a show of dismay at the "low price" he had given us - a bit of theatricality often encountered in the bargaining process, it turns out - but in fact he must have been quite pleased.  My wife and I had paid rather more than the mask's market value.  Pieces of its kind, decorative and made specifically for export or sale to tourists, are quite common, and could reasonably be expected to fetch anywhere from $80 to $150, depending upon their quality and the place they are sold.  Here is a picture of the mask:

An observer with a little experience looking at Mmwo masks would be able to identify this as a recently made export piece quite easily.  It has several obvious marks of "inauthenticity."  First, the face.  This particular face, with its heart shaped smile, seems to be a specialty of at least one workshop devoted to the tourist trade.  I have never seen a tribally used mask with a face like this, but similar export pieces crop up quite frequently.  Second, there is the carving.  While the overall form is balanced and well-proportioned, the detail work, especially on the coiffure, is cursory.  Instead of the elaborate patterns of braiding that often appear on tribally-used examples, there are a few spirals shallowly incised into the surface.  Third, the patina: the black, white, red and blue polychrome on this mask is quite common on Igbo pieces made for export; the same color combination, however - at least of this brightness - is rare on pieces made for tribal use.  In addition, the white kaolin on the face and the black coloring on the coiffure are clean and uniform in a way that the surfaces of tribally-used masks tend not to be.  Fourth, in a tribal context, these masks are usually worn attached to cloth costumes.   A tribally-used example should have holes all around its rim, so the costume's neck can be stitched to the mask.  Fifth, there is the inside of the mask, which appears to have been waxed to a uniform, smooth finish:

The insides of tribally-used examples are also sanded smooth, but left unfinished. They often have perceptible areas of wear at the places where they would have come in contact with the wearer's face. These signs of wear can be difficult to see in photographs, because they are often quite subtle.  An excessively visible patch of wear, in fact, can often be a sign that a mask has been artificially aged.  Finally, there is the odor.   At the time we bought it, the mask had a pronounced smoky smell, typical of recently-made pieces from Africa.

Whatever this mask's shortcomings from a connoisseur's perspective, my wife and I found it intriguing, and it inspired us to begin studying the Igbo people and their masquerades in more depth.  We dug around in a nearby university library for books on the subject (a few particularly good ones are listed at the end).   These masks, we learned, called "Agbogho Mmwo," represent the Igbo ideal of female beauty.  In addition to indicating otherworldly origins, their white faces symbolize purity and virtue.  This form, a three-quarters helmet with an elaborate crest, inspired by traditional Igbo women's coiffures, is particularly common the northern portion of Igboland.  The men who wear the masks - and they are always worn by men - dance in a style that strikes the Igbo as being both "feminine" and considerably more virtuosic than ordinary women's dancing.  In the old days, these masks appeared at second burial ceremonies, often in conjunction with "fierce" black masks called "Mgbedike."  The Mgbedike is the Agbogho Mmwo opposite - ugly instead of beautiful, aggressive instead of graceful.  These two masks embody the difference between male and female qualities, but also between wilderness and civilization: the Mgbedike, a monstrous, bestial figure, wears a costume of leaves.  The Agbogho Mmwo, on the other hand, wears a suit of elaborately-appliquéd cloth, which evokes the elaborate designs, called "uli," that Igbo women sometimes paint on their bodies with vegetable dye.

As we began studying images in books and auction catalogues, my wife and I realized that our mask was in fact a rather crude, stylized copy.   It migrated from the living room to the attic.  We began looking for a better example, and after many months found the following, from the estate of a man in New York:

This mask has certain clear stylistic similarities to the first one we purchased, but is of much higher quality.  The first and clearest sign of this quality is the fineness of the carving.  There is nothing "primitive" about this mask.  On the contrary, it is a refined piece of work.  Here, the carver has taken the time to realize the coiffure much more fully, carefully rendering each coiled braid in a regular pattern that shows considerable technical virtuosity, and creatively elaborating the struts of the crest.   He (Igbo carvers are traditionally men) has taken the time to pierce the mask at the centers of the ears, in order to give the dancer wearing it better visibility.  The facial features have also been carved in great detail, down to the nostrils and delicate teeth, and are more expressive than the other mask's schematic smile.

On a structural level, the quality of the execution is clear in the walls of the mask, which are uniformly thin. The carver has also exercised a little artistic license, while staying true to the form.  Instead of the more common triple crest, he has added a playful array of phallic protrusions.

This mask also shows signs of tribal use.  It has very small holes carefully and regularly pierced around its rim, some of which still hold the thread that once attached it to its costume.  On the outside edges of the mask, the areas the fabric would have rested against are rubbed smooth.  The patina on the outside of this mask is subtler than it is on the other - the whole piece has clearly received multiple layers of color.  This accretion is most visible on the face, but is also noticeable in the crannies of the coiffure.

The front portion of the crest, visible in the first picture of the mask, has a spot of wear at exactly the place where it would be most logical for someone picking up the mask to grab it.  Inside, there are areas of subtle wear in the places the dancer's face would have rubbed the wood.

The interior is hard to photograph, and I'm not sure this picture is very revealing.  In general, the marks of wear on mask interiors are subtle, and often only appear under certain angles of light. Masks used in more vigorous dances show more wear, but in general it is worth being suspicious if there is a single ostentatiously smooth patch inside the mask.

III.  A Third Example

At this point, I should note that for many collectors of African art, signs of use can be a crucial part of the esthetic whole a particular sculpture presents, and therefore add considerably to its value.  In some fields of collecting - baseball cards, say - the only valuable pieces are those in "mint condition."  An African sculpture in "mint condition," on the other hand, is worth much less than a well-used piece.  In part, this comes from the role sculpture tends to play in African cultures.  Generally, in Africa, the category of "art object" as we know it doesn't exist, or only began existing recently.  Traditional objects tended to be made (and still tend to be made, in many cases) to serve a particular purpose, whether magical, utilitarian, or as props in a larger spectacle that integrates sculpture with music, dance, and drama (like the Mmwo masks I'm talking about here).  The best-loved objects, which also tend to be the most beautiful, are the ones that show signs of having been used.

Signs of use add another dimension as well, one that's a product of non-African perception.  As the pioneering African art dealer Paul Guillaume noticed early in the last century, signs of rubbing, encrustation, abrasion and so on create surface textures - patinas - that are very rich and subtle.  A nice patina, like the one on the face of the second mask above, adds a great deal to an African sculpture's esthetic presence.  When African objects first started being collected in Europe, this patina was seen as "dirt" and removed; thanks to the efforts of connoisseurs like Guillaume, sensibilities changed.   For me as a collector today, the sheer beauty and uniqueness of the surfaces of African objects is one of their major attractions.
In the time since we found our second Mmwo mask, my wife and I have continued collecting, and have gathered together a number of other examples.

One is a much newer piece, collected by a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s.  It is also "authentic" but makes a very different impact from the last piece I discussed. Many collectors, in fact, would be turned off by its flamboyance.


Here, as you can see, the surface is painted with European enamel and the crest is made of papier mâché over bent coathangers.   The carver has decided to add flash by using crocheted doilies in bright colors, along with an array of trade goods, including metallic Christmas tinsel, lampshade fringe, filmy blue nylon, and a mirror framed in chartreuse plastic. While some collectors might find this mask inferior because it seems less "purely African," I appreciate the sheer exuberance with which it appropriates and transforms an array of items non-Africans might write off as "gaudy" or "cheap." The combination of elements shouldn't work, but somehow, in my opinion, it forms a surprisingly harmonious whole, one that remains clearly identifiable as Igbo even with all the novel ingredients from far-off places.

Because of the way the mask is made, signs of use are more difficult to identify on this piece. The papier mâché elements attached to the mask are so fragile that they probably would have disintegrated if left a long time in the humid conditions of southern Nigeria.  The carved face and wire superstructure, on the other hand, appears to have been used multiple times - the face has at least three layers of white paint beneath the one currently visible, and the wire is either tarnished or wound in layers of weathered cloth.  The carved portion of the mask shows little wear on the interior, because it seems to have been designed to sit on top of the wearer's head like a cap.  In this case, a dancer's face would be covered by the translucent nylon, rather than the mask itself.   Head-crest masks of this kind are fairly common among the Igbo.

This mask, then, in addition to being a favorite of mine, also gets us back to the broader question of "authenticity" that began this essay.   It shows clear signs of tribal use, but even so would leave a large number of collectors and dealers cold. The African art most highly valued in the marketplace is generally the art that seems to have come from a world that pre-dates European contact.  Older pieces are more highly sought-after, and often strike non-African observers as being somehow "purer" than newer ones.  In my opinion, however, creative intelligence is in fact a far more resilient thing - it can show up in all sorts of unexpected places. The challenge is to recognize it, and that is a matter of learning to speak another culture's language of beauty.

IV.  Sources of Further Information

Finally, here are two suggested references:

Cole, Herbert and Chike Aniakor. Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos (University of California Press, 1984).

An excellent website compiling photographs taken by the colonial administrator G.I. Jones, who was also an early scholar of Igbo arts:

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