Ibo , Objet art of the ethnic Ibo - African-art.net
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The Ibo (or Igbo)


Ibo masks are brought out, in particular for funerals when a mask representing a maiden spiritAgbo mmaung’ is used. This mask has an emaciated and poignant face, enhanced with touches of white and wears tattoos. The half cloche coiffure is very elaborate and surmounted by a high crest. The Ibo use thousands of masks, incarnating the spirits of the dead; masks are used for both judicial and entertainment purposes. Through the masks, the Ibo reflect a certain complementarity, by opposing beauty with bestiality, the feminine with the masculine, black with white. The northern Ibo (in the Izzi sub group), also have a mask incarnating the spirit of the elephant.

The Ibo own monumental statues of the ancestors, often polychrome and with a schematic rendering. The simplification of the forms is reduced down to the essential. The spirit of Ikenga is venerated as it brings success in business, hunting, crops, and war, as well as assuring prosperity. The Ikenga statue is a character always represented with two horns, recalling the aggressiveness of male animals. The statue sits on a chair, a clear symbol of authority.

The Ibo people (or Igbo, name given to them by the English), occupy a vast plateau between the Niger River and the Cross River in the south west of Nigeria.

Living in the thick forests or the infertile marshlands, they cultivate yams, they fish and trade.

Ibo (Igbo) Social Organisation

They are divided into 33 sub tribes spread over roughly 200 villages. This figure reveals a high density population of 10,000 inhabitants per village.

The male Mmow society has different grades or levels of initiates. One can enter the society at the age of ten, after having paid rights of admission and made the appropriate sacrifices. The initiation is progressive.

-        The youngest (first grade) learn that the masks are worn by men and learn through song the names of the different masks and how to imitate the falsetto voice belonging to the spirits.

-        It is the older initiates (second grade), of around thirty, that wear the masks, as the wearing and exhibiting of the masks requires a certain amount of stamina.

-        The elders (third grade) maintain order in the village.

The societies of elders and initiation societies maintain a socio-political cohesion. The Ibo culture has a very ancient past, and cultural artifacts dating from the 10th century have been excavated. The Ibo representations reveal an immense artistic wealth. There are a number of secret societies which remain accessible enough to welcome all those wealthy enough to pay their entry.

The success of an Ibo, both on a material, political and spiritual level, is determined by the will to succeed and physical strength. The ideal is to be a good farmer, gaining wealth, prestige and honour, to have a large family, and later to hold an esteemed position among the ancestors. This desire to succeed is manifested in family sanctuaries that are looked after and maintained by the men.

Religious Beliefs and Social Rites among the Ibo (Igbo)

The God creator Chukwu is never represented. In contrast, the Ibo preserve numerous statues of the guardian divinities of the founding ancestors in both their family sanctuaries and the initiation association’s communal houses, otherwise known as the mens’ meeting house. Here, large sculpted figures (called Alusi) often a couple, can be found, sometimes accompanied by other smaller statues that follow the familial model: husband, wife, children, messengers and Ikenga. Painted red, yellow and white, the scarification marks and attributes are an indication of the social rank of the person being represented. This may be founding ancestors who have been remembered, divinities from the village or market. They are looked after and well maintained. The wood is replaced if it gets too worn and they are repainted for important festivities where they appear dressed in Ibo costume.

Having no governing power to settle conflicts between individuals or lineages, the Ibo refer to the Alusi statues for decision making. The accused must take an oath in front of the sanctuary, and the Alusi, and the oracle passes judgement. If the accused is found guilty he will become ill under the oracle’s power, and if he dies all his worldly belongings are inherited by the sanctuary. Some Alusi statues were so renowned for their efficaciousness that people came from afar to consult them.

The sanctuaries are small in size and embellished with doors decorated by geometric motifs, sculpted panels, and painted walls that are repainted every year if necessary. This is where weekly and yearly rituals take place.

As well as music and dancing, the Ibo are very sensitive to the visual arts. During the annual ancestral festivities or other ceremonies consecrated to the ancestors, large shows are organised. When the drumbeat rolls, the statues belonging to the chief of lineage are carried out and placed in rows in front of the sanctuary wall for the whole population to see. The statues are endowed with swords, headgear, eagle’s feathers and jewellery. In return, the divinities accord protection, a good harvest or fertility. The relationship between man and the divinities is based on a system of reciprocal exchange.

Ibo sculpture is subject to some quite strict conventions: the figures are generally frontal, symmetric, positioned with the legs slightly apart, the arms away from the body, hands stretched out to the front with the palms facing upwards. The proportions reflect the human body, apart from the neck which is slightly lengthened. Abstraction of the figure is reduced to a minimum. There is an overall impression of balance and stability. These figures are not portraits; the artist maintains a certain freedom in the detailing and can in this way, reveal his talent.


Ibo Masks

Ibo masks are brought out for funeral ceremonies during the course of which a maiden spirit mask ‘Agbo mmaung’ appears. This mask has an emaciated and poignant face, enhanced with touches of white and wears tattoos. The half cloche coiffure is very elaborate and surmounted by a high crest. Among the lateral decorative elements there are sometimes hair combs. This maiden spirit mask represents the Ibo feminine ideal. Beauty and serenity emanate from these works, in which the artist, whilst respecting the obligatory aesthetic canons, liberates himself from academism by creating a multitude of coiffures and decorations.

 Masks are also used at the end of the mourning period, when the deceased’s soul enters the spirit world. Among those used are the zoomorphic masks that evoke an analogy between the physical perfection of wild animals and the stamina and vitality of the young men.

 The Ibo use thousands of masks, which incarnate the spirits or the dead. These masks, made out of lightweight wood, play a role in the judicial system or in contrast are created for entertainment. They appear every year for the harvest celebrations, at the funerals of notaries or the commemoration of some initiation cults. Through the masks, the Ibo reflect a certain complementarity, by opposing beauty with bestiality, the feminine with the masculine, black with white.

  • The long face, surmounted by a crest incarnates the young pubescent girl during festivities in which virgins are honoured.
  • In the cults of the secret societies, the night spirits are represented by masks with very elaborated coiffures made out of crests, horns etc that are superposed one on top of the other.
  • Although patrilineage is the ruling structure, the importance of women is amplified in the masked dances of the ‘Agbo mmaung’, or maiden spirit mask.

Generally, the feminine masks are white, the black often being the prerogative of the masculine masks, the latter being characterized by rough and aggressive traits. These masks evoke the spirit of man as warrior, hunter and predator. The highly caricatural dances underline this male/female duality.

  • Among the masks of the northern Ibo there is a mask that incarnates the spirit of the elephant. The front of the mask represents an elephant with a frontal arch that bends up, evoking the elephant’s trunk. The back of the mask is mostly decorated with a human head or more unusually a small character. This mask, which is usually polychrome, is worn like a helmet on the top of the head. It is used for the new yam festival or more rarely at an important chief’s funeral ceremony.

The women and the uninitiated watch the masks perform from a distance.


Ibo statues (Igbo)

The Ibo also possess monumental statues of the ancestors, often polychrome and with a schematic rendering. The simplification of the forms is reduced down to the essential. Their dimensions are exceptionally large for African sculpture, from 1 m – 1.75m.

Ibo (Igbo) Ikenga Statues

The Ibo from the north west, their northern neighbours the Igala and the Urhobo, worship the spirit Ikenga, that brings success in commerce, hunting, crops, war, as well as bringing prosperity. These people honour this spirit on sculpted altars, dedicated to the right hand, the symbol of industriousness. The altar, according to its dimensions, can be found in a collective or individual sanctuary along with other objects linked to the ancestors.

The Ikenga is a character that is always represented with two horns that recall the aggressiveness of male animals. The statue is sitting on a chair, the symbol of authority. The Ikenga refers to wealth and social status, as well as power and aggressiveness.  The big Ikenga statues attain 70 cm, and some even bigger, measuring over 1.80m.

Sometimes the statue is holding a knife symbolising superiority in affairs of war, or perhaps a head as a trophy, expressing courage and success. The statue is scarified according to the initiation grade of its owner and may also have various attributes such as a trumpet, stool, bracelet, or elephant’s tusk.

Young men have Ikenga statues made at various ages, but they all own one by the time they get married or leave the family home. The owner of an Ikenga is always a man, but a woman may also benefit from its benevolent spirit.

The owner of the Ikenga makes sacrifices to thank the spirits for the results obtained and to ensure that this continues in the future. Classic offerings were kola nuts that stimulate energy levels. Occasionally bloody sacrifices were made on the altars, and the blood spilt served to strengthen the spirits.

Certain Ikenga statues have a sacrificial patina and others are polychrome. Some are carefully sculpted with a smooth surface, and others are less finished in a rather impressionistic style.

In the past, an Ikenga statue was broken into pieces at the death of its owner. Nowadays, they are preserved on the ancestor’s altar.

There are large Ikenga statues made of superposed figures and which are dedicated to a community, a lineage, or a particular age group. The hairstyles are very elaborate but always have two horns. These Ikenga are exhibited during village festivities and convey a sentiment of solidarity. Baby boys born in the preceding year are presented to the Ikenga statue, and the Ikenga is also paraded around the village to congratulate and bless its inhabitants.

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