A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Ijo, Duein Fobara (Ekeine Society Memorial Screen), Late 19th century, Wood, raffia, pigment, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The John R. Van Derlip Fund
Ijaw people live on the coastal delta of the Niger River, a location advantageous to trade. When European merchants began voyages to Africa in the fifteenth century, the Ijaw served as middlemen in the exchange of gold, ivory, and slaves for European products. Certain families became extremely wealthy, comparable in their economic power to the merchant princes of Europe.
When a member of a trading house died, relatives commissioned an artist to produce a memorial screen called a duein fobara, or forehead of the dead. For Ijaw people one’s immortal spirit resides in the forehead, and the screen becomes the spirit’s home after death. The image represents the deceased person at the center, surrounded by servants, and is kept in the trading house and given symbolic offerings of food and drink. Although trading houses have declined in power and importance duein fobara screens are still occasionally made.
The Niger Delta is occupied by Ijo fishermen, whose masks for the cults of the water spirits are made in the form of aquatic animals, especially hippopotamus and crocodile. The western Ijo use ejiri figures, in which the head of the household is represented upon a highly schematic quadruped that is said to represent the guardian spirit of the family. Similar objects are made by the Edo-speaking Urhobo, to the north of the Ijo, where they are used in a cult of aggressiveness by the warriors. Among the eastern Ijo, shrines for the water spirits have figures that are often large though frequently kept hidden. They also have masks, similar to those of the western Ijo, worn by men of the Ekine society. In addition, there are shrines that contain sculptures for the village heroes and ancestors. In some Kalabari communities, rectangular screens are fashioned by carpentry into a low-relief frontal group in which a commemorated ancestor is flanked by supporting figures--much like the king in Benin plaques, by which the screens may have been inspired about two centuries ago. All Ijo sculpture exhibits a four-square schematic style that contrasts starkly with the relative naturalism of surrounding styles, such as those of Yorubaland or Benin.
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