Sculptors from several groups living in southeastern Nigeria, east of the Cross River and across the border in western Cameroon, produce a distinctive type of mask carved from wood and covered with antelope skin. The tradition probably originated among the Ejagham peoples. Most of the masks portray the human head, often janus or multifaced, with a high degree of naturalism.
Although depictions of animals are rare, this example features a long, tapering crocodile head with spiral structures said to represent a woman's coiffure rather than horns. A hole in the forehead, now covered with skin, may have held a wooden crown or a third spiral that jutted from the forehead. When in use, the mask, attached to a woven basketry cap, sits on the masquerader's head; his face and body are covered with netting or fabric.
P. Amaury Talbot, a British administrative officer, was the first European to observe the crocodile mask in use at Oban, Nigeria, before 1909. He described it in relation to the bassinjom, an antiwitchcraft association: "The image was robed in a long gown of dark blue cloth daubed with mud from the river bed. . . . On its head it bore a crocodile mask carved in wood, perhaps a representation of Nimm herself."
Talbot noted that according to Ekoi/Ejagham mythology, Nimm was a deity worshiped by women and dreaded by men. Her guardian spirit lived in the "sacred lake" and was manifested in crocodile form.
Keith Nicklin, who conducted fieldwork among several Cross River groups, suggests a stylistic classification of skin-covered masks into the lower, middle and upper Cross River areas. He reports that though there is little variation in the bassinjom masks throughout the Cross River region, "crocodile cap" masks in the lower Cross River can be more realistic, their surfaces covered with skin and bearing representations of horns or crowns.
Large wood crest mask in the form of a crocodile with spiral, curved horns, open mouth with teeth and covered with skin.
Maurice Nicaud, Paris, before 1972
Alan Brandt, New York, -- to 1988
Artful Animals, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., July 1, 2009-July 25, 2010
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