Lot 78
  • 78

Wurkun/Bikwin Vertical Female Mask, Benue River Valley, Nigeria

7,000 - 10,000 USD
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  • wood, fiber
  • Height: 38 in (96.5 cm)


Allan Stone, New York

Catalogue Note

The art of the Benue River Valley was one of the last major unstudied areas of sub-Saharan Africa until Marla Berns' important exhibition Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley that travelled from the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, to the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., to the Cantor Arts Centor at Stanford University, Palo Alto, and to the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris in 2011-2013.

Chapter 14 of the exhibition catalog is dedicated to a small corpus of approximately "sixty-five highly distinctive vertical masks documented in the field and in museum and private collections [...] made by the 'Wurkun' and 'Bikwin', Mumuye, Yendang and Jukun peoples of the Middle Benue. The masks range from approximately 80 to 160 centimeters in height and all are carved from a single piece of wood. They share a unique configuration, which has been identified in the literature as 'yoke' due to the characteristic U-shaped support [... and] are among the most imposing sculptures of the entire Benue River Valley region" (Berns 2011: 437).

Further into the chapter, Berns (ibid.: 453) discusses masks of the style of the Allan Stone mask: "The largest, most various, and most enigmatic category of vertical masks is the one we are associating here with the groups identified in this volume as Wurkun or Bikwin. [...] Wurkun vertical masks can be divided into the two primary subcategories: those in the first type have large, dome-shaped hemispherical heads (males are identified by high transverse crests, which female versions lack) and long columnar necks emerging out of flat-topped supports [... Masks of type one are] the most dramatic from the side view, with their faces reduced to jagged profiles [...]. Indeed, the striking two-dimensionality of the angular profile belies the roundness of the head in frontal perspective. This sharp difference suggests that in performance the masks were seen in multiple viewpoints."

According to Berns, Wurkun/Bikwin masks of type one are exceedingly rare and of great age. For other examples see one in the collection of the Musée Dapper, Paris; a second, previously in the collections of Jacques Kerchache and William Rubin, in the Robert T. Wall Family Collection, San Francisco; and a third in the collection of Mark Groudine and Cynthia Putnam (all published in Berns 2011: 454 and 456, figs. 14.30, 14.32 and 14.33).