African Artist From the Igbo Tribe, ‘Primo Quality, Elegant Igbo Maiden "mmwo" Helmet Mask’, 1920, Berz Gallery of African Art
African Artist From the Igbo Tribe, ‘Primo Quality, Elegant Igbo Maiden "mmwo" Helmet Mask’, 1920, Berz Gallery of African Art
African Artist From the Igbo Tribe, ‘Primo Quality, Elegant Igbo Maiden "mmwo" Helmet Mask’, 1920, Berz Gallery of African Art
African Artist From the Igbo Tribe, ‘Primo Quality, Elegant Igbo Maiden "mmwo" Helmet Mask’, 1920, Berz Gallery of African Art
African Artist From the Igbo Tribe, ‘Primo Quality, Elegant Igbo Maiden "mmwo" Helmet Mask’, 1920, Berz Gallery of African Art
African Artist From the Igbo Tribe, ‘Primo Quality, Elegant Igbo Maiden "mmwo" Helmet Mask’, 1920, Berz Gallery of African Art
African Artist From the Igbo Tribe, ‘Primo Quality, Elegant Igbo Maiden "mmwo" Helmet Mask’, 1920, Berz Gallery of African Art

Finding a Mmwo mask that is both rich and rustic is quite a challenge. In this exceptional example, we finding a masterfully carved Igbo mask that is both rich and rustic…and much more. The carving quality is stunning. When one notes the sophistication of multi-dimensional combs jutting outward from the coiffure, the forward-facing rows topped by rounded “mirrors”, which appear much like tentacles of an octopus, each symmetrically and carefully dimensionally-aligned, the mask becomes even more impressive. Finally, the patina on the mask is beautiful and provides evidence of both age and use, with encrustation and layers of wear reflecting the application and reapplication of pigment stain and/or paint and areas of glossy shine from handling and exposure to the elements over decades. In many of the cuplike extensions we find the application of Rickett’s Blue, an imported whitening agent used on many Nigerian masks in the early 20th century, in place of indigo, which was (and remains) expensive and difficult to cultivate. It is thought by scholars that the blue was used to “cool down” the energy of the mask. The ketoid scarification flourishes add exceptional realism to the piece, and while there is some old erosion on the right side of the coiffure and very old fissures in the wood, they are meaningless to us in light of a work that is absolutely complete and beautiful. And all of this…from a single block of wood. Masterful. Background: The Igbo people of Nigeria have extraordinary, complex, and multi-layered masking traditions that vary in theme, goal, objective, and function depending on region, village, and historical masquerade tradition. Despite this level of complexity and breadth, this particular style of maiden mask, known as Agbogho Mmwo, is critically important to the tribe and has a meaning and function which is well-known and is danced throughout the wider Igbo geographical territory. The mask has a number of functions, but it is primarily used to idealize the powerful qualities of young women, of feminine grace and youthful beauty. As men dance the mask, these qualities are often exaggerated in the mask performance, almost to comic proportion. As is detailed in an important text on the Igbo, “Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos” by Aniakor and Cole, this mask “…embodies the facial features of the Igbo model of beauty. The girl should have an elaborate, sophisticated coiffure, which enhances her beauty, often with the inclusion of combs (as in this example), mirrors, flowers, bulbs (also in this example) and other accouterments in the crested hair. Her face is often lighter in color (note the yellow used on this example) and hair elaborately dressed (preferably in the crested style, as in this example) and her features brought out by facial tattoos or scarification (also present in this fine example). As Cole and Aniakor write, “these observable qualities mirror the spiritual traits desired by Igbo males - purity, as defined by the paleness of her complexion, grace in the form of her facial features and the manner in which the spirit is danced, obedience, good character, and generosity. In addition, the crested hairstyle, which is often considered a sign of wealth or royalty, is a symbol of the young Igbo maiden as the source of bride-wealth for her family upon her marriage. Such physical and moral ideals are often not matched in reality, and are not necessarily meant to the maiden spirits are transcendent, a connection between Igbo desires of beauty and the spiritual awesomeness of the incarnate dead. Maiden mask artists favored red, orange, yellow, and black pigments to highlight their carvings, along with other colors, and these can be seen on the entirety of the mask. Maiden masks are used mostly during agricultural festivals (usually the dry season) and the second funerals of prominent society members. On latter occasions maiden spirits are invoked alongside other spirits as appropriate escorts of the highly respected dead into the spirit world. During agricultural or other ceremonies, however, maiden spirits appear to aid in watching over the living and to promote abundant harvests, fertility, and general prosperity. Maiden spirits are light-hearted in contrast to more menacing spirits of the Igbo world, which often generate a more serious atmosphere. Maiden maskers perform almost theatrically, as if in a play, their purpose to entertain both human and spirit audiences.” References: Aniakor, Chike C. and Herbert M. Cole. Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos. Museum of Cultural History, University of California: Los Angeles, 1984

Vetted as authentic and antique by a committee of tribal art experts and exhibited at the San Francisco Tribal Arts Show, February 2017