Yoruba-Ijebu Mask for the Ekine Cult, Depicting the Water Spirit Igodo, Nigeria
Susan and Jerry Vogel, New York, acquired from the above, 1970s
One of the most dominant groups in the Yoruba kingdom, the Ijebu took advantage of their position in the mid-coastal region of southern Nigeria and amassed wealth and power by controlling trade routes between the sea and the interior. Discussing a closely related mask in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fagg (1982: 39, text to figure 41) notes: "[in the Ijebu region] the monolithic tribality of Yoruba style is impaired by intrusions of Ijo style, supported by (and supporting) the powerful Ekine society of the Ijo, which seems to have been adopted by the southern Yoruba as a way of coming to terms with the sea - an alien element to the originally landlocked Yoruba, but a way of life to the Ijo, who live where possible on pile dwellings over the water and who are the fishermen of the coast. Ekine, meaning in Ijo, "dancing people," exists with its own basically Ijo art style alongside traditionally Yoruba institutions such as the kingship and the Oshugbo, or Ogboni, society, with their own purely Yoruba arts, and there is no great interchange of art forms between them. The main dance group of Ekine is the Agbo, or Magbo, society, to which this mask belongs. It is one of a series of masks which are danced in threes and which include antelope and bush-cow representations."
Drewal (in Drewal and Pemberton 1989: 144) continues: "Among the Ijebu, children born through the intercession of water spirits are known as omolokun ('children of the sea') or elekine ('children of the water spirits'), and are praised in verse: 'Children of the sea with shells on their heads/Rulers today, rulers tomorrow, rulers forever/Fire on their head that water quenches.' [...] An elaborate program of masquerades celebrates the role of water spirits who give birth to such children and affect the welfare of Ijebu coastal communities."
The masks used in such masquerades bear symbols relating to the world of humans as well as the world of the "water people", including animal forms which are akin to water. The offered lot combines a humanoid face with protruding conical eyes, an abstract bird on the forehead, a long "beak" and a stylized serpent carved in relief. For three closely related masks from the same workshop as the present mask photographed in situ, see Carroll (1966: 15, fig. 14). For two more related masks see De la Burde (1973: 30).