Monday, 28 October 2013

Researching African skin-covered masks

Jill (right) and I looking at some skin-covered masks
from the collections © Pitt Rivers Museum
The Museum has a diverse and interesting collection of African skin-covered masks. I am in the process of improving upon the existing information the Museum has about these masks. I am particularly interested in how these masks are made and used. Jill Salmons and her late husband, Keith Nicklin, have researched and written extensively about this type of mask. So I was really pleased when Jill kindly agreed to spend the day with me studying this collection. Jill confirmed the art of covering an African wooden mask with skin is unique to the Cross River region of western Cameroon and southeastern Nigeria.

The Museum collection includes both cap and helmet masks, which are the two main types of skin-covered mask. Jill explained men and women are known to wear skin-covered cap masks, whereas only men are known to wear the skin-covered helmet masks, which tend to be heavier. These photographs, which Keith Nicklin took when working in the Cross River area of Nigeria, show how the cap mask is worn on the top of the head whereas the helmet mask covers the whole head, resting on the shoulders.

Left: Cap mask and costume worn by an Egbege masquerader, an all-female association, PRM 1998.480.11
Right:  Helmet mask and costume worn by a member of Nkang, an all-male association, PRM 1998.480.10
© Pitt Rivers Museum 

In the local communities skin-covered masks are worn for various events, including cultural displays, entertainment, festivals and rituals such as funerals and initiation. Masks are also sold and traded. During the 1970s, Keith Nicklin examined the skin-covered masks in British museums, including the Pitt Rivers Museum. Keith suspected many had never actually been used but were probably commissioned by traders and others (see Nicklin, 1979:54).

Examining a double-faced helmet mask with porcupine quills, PRM 1914.26.23 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Jill described how different the masks look when they are worn in the local communities. They are often polished with palm oil, the features enhanced with colour and additional decorations such as feathers and porcupine quills. Jill and I looked at one of the masks in the collection that still has porcupine quills inserted through the mouth and at the top of the head.   

Jill explained making this type of mask is a highly skilled, time-consuming, and intricate process. We looked at this one, which does not look like one made by a proficient carver. If you look closely, you can see bunched-up, overlapping skin around the ears and at the back.

The actual carving of the wooden part of the mask requires expertise. When the carving is finished the wood needs to be left for a few weeks to dry out before being covered in skin. A popular skin to use - partly due to its thinness - is duiker, a small antelope found in the rainforests of the Cross River. Before using, the hair is removed and the skin softened. Once ready , the skin needs to be carefully stretched, shaped to fit, and then secured on to the carving. The skin then needs to dry on to the mask before decorating. This series of photographs show Patrick Achong, a long-term friend of Jill and Keith and a skilled carver, making a skin-covered helmet mask.

Preparing the wooden mask, the antelope skin and application of the skin.
Photos by Keith Nicklin; PRM 1998.480.32, 1998.480.41, 1998.480.42 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Damaged cap mask, PRM 1914.26.14 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Jill highlighted the time and expense involved in making this type of mask. Preservation of skin-covered masks is also a problem for the local communities. The hot, humid climate renders both the skin and wood susceptible to fungal attacksinsect infestation, and rodents.

One of the wooden cap masks is in poor condition with signs of old termite damage. Jill thinks the mask probably had a skin covering but that this was eaten by rats back in Nigeria.

At the Museum we are currently working on a new permanent display focusing on Nigerian masks and masquerade. I asked Jill to help us select some skin-covered masks for this forthcoming display. Here are those choices plus some of the interesting things Jill and I found out about each one:

PRM 1942.4.9 B © Pitt Rivers Museum

Triple-faced helmets, like this one, are unusual as they are generally double-faced. This is a very well made example with finely carved features and the skin smoothly attached to the carving. This style of helmet mask is made in the Middle Cross River and is often used in Warrior Society masquerades. The darker face, which represents a male, is worn to the front, whilst the lighter faces facing backwards represent females. The markings on the latter include nsibidi symbols. Nsibidi originates in southeastern Nigeria where many different languages and dialects are spoken and creates a common form of communication between those who understand the meaning of these symbols.

A well-made cap mask with finely carved features and the skin smoothly attached. This example includes detachable horns and nsibidi symbols on the face. 

PRM 1914.26.10 © Pitt Rivers Museum

This double-faced cap mask, when looked at from this angle, clearly shows the dark male face and lighter female face with nsibidi symbols on the cheeks. 

PRM 1943.3.49 © Pitt Rivers Museum

This is beautifully carved and shaped and the brass eyes are unusual. It appears to have originally been part of a helmet mask. 

PRM 1922.67.23 © Pitt Rivers Museum

This is an interesting cap mask with light skin and a beard, and could represent a European. Alternatively, old men are also generally depicted with beards. 

PRM 1928.26.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

This cap mask is interesting because it is not from the same region as the others. Differences include: the style of the hair, the facial markings, how the eyes have been created, the type of basketry base and the skin covering.

PRM 1938.15.39 © Pitt Rivers Museum

The sharply defined features and the shape of the mouth are characteristic of the work of a well-known, but unfortunately unidentified, early 20th-century carver. How this cap mask has been made is interesting because the skin covering goes over the basketry base. 

PRM 1943.3.48 © Pitt Rivers Museum 

People in the Cross River still use skin-covered masks for masquerade performances. We have no contemporary examples of this art of carving at the Museum. The ones in the collection were all made by 1942 at the latest. Jill and I are discussing how the Museum could acquire some contemporary examples.

I had a really rewarding day looking at the collection - my thanks to Jill for sharing such a wealth of information. She has kindly agreed to come again to look at more of the collection so keep an eye on this blog and I will keep you posted. In the meantime you can explore the African masks collection yourself via the Object Database on the Museum website. See my previous blog for some tips on using this resource.

Zena (email me)

Suggested further reading:

Jones, David, and Jill Salmons, 2011, Changing Styles: an introduction to the History of Art in the Cross River in Masquerade Mosaic: Charles Partridges Collection from Eastern Nigeria 1903-1913, David Jones (editor). Ipswich: Healeys Print Group.

Nicklin, Keith, Spring 1974, Nigerian Skin-Covered Masks in African Arts Volume 7, Number 3, pages 8-15, 67-68 & 92.

Nicklin, Keith, February 1979, Skin-Covered Masks of Cameroon in African Arts Volume 12, Number 2, pages 54-59 & 91-92.

Nicklin, Keith, and Jill Salmons, November 1984, Cross River Art Styles in African Arts Volume 18, Number 1, pages 28-43 & 93-94.

Nicklin, Keith, and Jill Salmons, 1988, ‘Ikem: the history of a masquerade in southeast Nigeria’ in West African Masks and Cultural Systems, Sidney Kasfir (editor). Tervuren, Belgique: Musée royal de l'Afrique central.

Cross River skin-covered masks (Centre for Teaching Excellence, Kansas University, 2009)