Face Mask (Mba)
The Collector(s) / Donor(s)
Simon Ottenberg is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Washington. Having studied anthropology at Northwestern University with the famous Africanist Melville Herskovits, he began working in Africa in the early 1950s.His early research focused on various aspects of the Igbo culture of southeastern Nigeria, especially the peoples living in and around the town of Afikpo. In the late 1970s he shifted his research focus to northern Sierra Leone and the Limba people. In addition to his work in anthropology he has been a major contributor to the study of African art. He recently curated an exhibition and wrote a book dealing with a number of artists affiliated with the School of Fine Arts at the Nsukka campus of the University of Nigeria in southeast Nigeria. Since the early 1970s he has been an avid collector of African art. Professor Ottenberg donated a considerable portion of his collection to Michigan State University in 1992.
This is a face mask that is commonly used in okumkpa performances in the Igbo town of Afikpo and surrounding villages in southeastern Nigeria. Okumkpa is a theater tradition staged after the Dry Season Festival. It often involves up to 100 masked performers--men and boys-- who dance, sing, and act out a series of skits before an audience of men, women, and children. The performances are satirical and topical in nature and function as critical commentary on the lives and affairs of people living in the community. Among the Afikpo Igbo, putting on a mask transforms the performer into a spirit (mma). Such masks are generally associated with a deity of the secret society called egbele, but the spirit of the deity is not perceived as residing in the mask but as remaining in the sacred bush--the mma is viewed as a manifestation of it. Ottenberg (1975: 31) informs us that the mba mask is "worn by older boys in the akparakpa group in the okumkpa play and occasionally by a musician at this masquerade." The origins and specific meaning of the name of this mask, mba, is not clear, however it has been suggested that the name derives from the type of wood used to produce the mask, called mba. This mask was commissioned by Ottenberg in 1959-60 while conducting resarch in Afikpo from the carver Chukwu Okoro. It was previously published in Ottenberg's Masked Rituals of Afikpo: The Context of an African Art, page 28, fig. 6.
Books and Articles
Simon Ottenberg. Masked Rituals of Afikpo: The Context of an African Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975.
Simon Ottenberg. "Afikpo Masquerades: Audience and Performers." African Arts 6 (4) 1973: 32-35, 94.
Simon Ottenberg. "'We Are Becoming Art Minded': Afikpo Arts 1988." African Arts 22 (4) 1989: 58-67, 88.