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The Ibibio People of Africa, South Eastern Nigeria

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People: Ibibio
Location: Southeastern Nigeria
Population: 1,000,000
 


Arts:  The art of the Ibibio is a study in contrasts, and consists primarily of masks, which come in an array of styles. This is primarily because of the influence of the all-powerful Ekpo Society, which exercises control over almost all aspects of Ibibio life. Each village is ruled by a group of elders and select members from important families. Though these individuals choose the agenda for public behavior, it is the Ekpo that enforces it, often with an iron hand.

As an example, if one shows any disrespect to an ancestor, they are dealt with severely, perhaps required to pay a bribe or even beaten. The "enforcement" squads of the Ekpo wear masks as they dole out "justice." These stark black masks are made to frighten, thus insuring compliance. At the same time, these masks, with their raffia fringes, conveniently hide the identity of the "enforcers."

A well-known example of an Ibibio festival is one where white-faced "maiden spirit" masks are danced. Right alongside the many white masks, celebrating feminine beauty and fertility, you will find the foreboding black masks of the Ekpo. To put it bluntly, an Ibibio village is not a democracy. Even admission into Ekpo, theoretically open to everyone, depends on a system of patronage and payoffs.

If this sounds a bit far-fetched, just look at history. The British found the power of the Ekpo so entrenched, so pervasive and, well, effective, that they gave up on certain demands and allowed this system of bribes and intimidation to continue. Little, apparently, has changed. Despite the way this might look from the "outside," it does seem to maintain social order. So in its own flawed way, it is a success.

Statuary, while known to exist, and probably connected to ancestral ceremonies, is difficult to differentiate from that of their neighbors, as well as the many Ibibio sub-groups, like the Eket and Anang. To further confuse things, the Ibibio, known as master carvers, will often carve and sell masks to their neigbors. The familiar, small "Yam festival" masks, with their hinged, clacking jaws, are used by the Ibibio, but also carved and sold to the Ogoni, who use them in a similar fashion.
 


History: Though the Ibibio have lived in the Cross River region of Nigeria for hundreds of years, written records only exist from colonial times. But like most groups in the region, their history in the area probably goes back thousands of years, and there is a strong oral tradition supporting this.

To see fine examples of African artifacts, carvings, masks and textiles please visit our eBay store Africa Direct.

All text and images copyright Africa Direct, Inc. 2006.

 
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