This horizontal crest mask is in the form of a stylized hippopotamus, a Kalabari Ijo water spirit called otobo. The mask is distinguished by its strongly-carved, visually powerful form and its superb, original patina. Designed to be worn at a slight angle on top of the head, the mask is a composite creature that combines both human and animal characteristic.
Masquerades representing water spirits are popular among the art-producing groups of Nigeria's Niger Delta region. Though playful, mischievous and linked with the wilderness, Niger Delta water spirits are generally considered more benevolent, kind and beautiful than other denizens of the wild that inhabit dry land. Among the Kalabari Ijo, who comprise some 30 villages and towns in the eastern Niger Delta region, water spirit masquerades are performed by the Ekine society, open to any adult male. Each water spirit has its own festival, part of a cycle of periodic festivals that follow those honoring the village heroes and the dead.
Water spirit masks take a variety of material forms. In addition to the hippo, the python, crocodile, swordfish, shark and smaller fish, as well as human forms, can also represent water spirits. In a 1965 publication anthropologist Robin Horton reported that "emo, the tough hardwood of the Common Mangrove (Rhizophera alata) is the standard wood for sculptures of the water-spirits" because it comes from the creeks where water spirits tend to dwell. Field photographs of a water spirit masquerade performance published by Horton in the 1960s document hippo maskers wearing cloth wrappers, shirts and head coverings embellished with raffia fiber fringe.
Wood horizontal crest mask of a stylized hippopotamus. It is distinguished by four cylindrical tusks protruding from below the rounded, gaping maw; triangular-shaped eyes carved in high relief; and a projecting headdress composed of a central raised triangle decorated with incised cross-hatchings depicting a stylized reptile, possibly a crocodile or a lizard. Deeply-cut diamond patterns, many rubbed with white pigment, ornament the headdress. The proper right side of the mask has traces of this white pigment, which is deliberately absent on the proper left side.
Philippe and Helene Leloup, Paris, 1978 or 1979 to 2005
Jacques Blanckaert, Brussels, - to 1978
Currents: Water in African Art, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., June 2016-ongoing
Artful Animals, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., July 1, 2009-July 25, 2010
Masques du Monde, Société Génerale de Banque, Brussels, June 28-July 31, 1974
Anderson, Martha G. and Christine Mullen Kreamer. 1989. Wild Spirits, Strong Medicine: African Art and the Wilderness. New York: Museum for African Art, p. 114, no. 66.
Société Génerale de Banque. 1974. Masques du monde. Bruxelles: Société Génerale de Banque, no. 47.