High and mighty

10th June 2005 at 01:00
This traditional Ijele mask from south-eastern Nigeria was commissioned by the Horniman Museum. Nancy Lee Preston and Louise Palmer explore its significance in Igbo society and speculate on its origin in the legend of a greedy giant

"If you see Ijele, you have seen it all."

(Emmanuel Nnaking Arinze, President of the West African Museums Association)

At five metres high, this Igbo Ijele ceremonial mask - the only one of its kind in Britain - towers above all others in size, beauty, grace, majesty and elegance. One Igbo tale offers a version of the story behind it: "There once lived a giant by the name of Anukili, who lived in the village of Aguleri, north-west Igbo, Nigeria. He was always hungry and would often steal food from other villagers. Over the walls into people's gardens he would go, pulling up vegetables, seizing meat from their stores and even taking cooked meals from their kitchen tables.

"One day, the villagers had a meeting to discuss what they should do. One wise man came up with a plan. He announced a contest to see who would be strong enough to lift the thatched roof from the largest house in the village and carry it to the waterside. Whoever could do it first would have a feast cooked for them.

"On the day of the contest, several people entered but failed to lift the roof from the walls of the house. When Anukili's turn came, the giant strode over to the house and picked up the thatched roof as if it was made with feathers. He placed the roof on his head and made his way to the water. However, before he could reach the waterside, the wise man reached up and lit the straw on the roof. Soon the whole thatch caught alight but it was not until Anukili could feel the heat of the flames that he realised his entire head was on fire. Running to the water, he threw the roof from his head. The fire was out but Anukili realised he had been taught a lesson and left the village in shame, never to return. Anukili's family swore that nevermore would there be tall men in the family!"

It could be said that the Ijele mask design resembles circular Igbo buildings with conical roofs, much like the one lifted by Anukili the giant. Without doubt, the Ijele (coming from the Igbo words "ije" to walk or go, and "le" mighty or big like an elephant) is the most impressive of the masquerades performed by the Igbo people and is regarded as bringing peace to the community. Just as in the story, in times of trouble, the inhabitants of a particular village would create a mask from this breathtaking design, to promote harmony and communal dialogue. Each mask is then collectively owned and can only be used on special occasions on the authority of the kings and elders of the community. Usually, after a performance, the Ijele is dismantled and packed away, and this is what makes the Ijele's permanent display in the African Worlds gallery at the Horniman Museum so unique.

Commissioned by the Horniman in 1998, this Ijele was made by master craftsman Ichie Ezennaya of Achalla in south-eastern Nigeria, whose family have a long tradition of building Ijele masquerade costumes for the community. His wife and children helped design, cut and sew together the various motifs as well as more than 1,000 other pieces from which it is formed. Expertly constructed from cane and bamboo frame with appliqued fabric and foam to reduce its weight, the building of the Ijele mask is a complex and demanding task that can take up to a year. In a traditional setting, the entire community would provide food and palm wine for the master craftsman, as the Ijele construction is a social and historic event for the entire community, fostering a sense of collective ownership and pride.

The motifs that adorn the Ijele form a kaleidoscope of colours and striking designs to illustrate the Igbo people's culture and belief system.

Prominent among the motifs is the python - eke ogba - located in the middle of the structure. The eke in Igbo mythology is a great and powerful reptile that can swallow a human being.

Other motifs include hands, elephants, police, eagle feathers and white figures representing the supreme mystical authority of the ancestors. The figure on horseback at the top of the masquerade represents a colonial district officer or Igbo King. Overall, the motifs represent the interplay of the spiritual, animal and physical worlds and express the harmony that prevails in the Igbo communities. In spite of its size and weight - it is almost five metres high, over two metres wide and weighing nearly 230kg - only one person carries the Ijele.

However, special rites have to be performed before the mask is balanced on the head of the person chosen to carry it. The Ijele performs - but only for 10 to 20 minutes, as it is too heavy to carry for a long time - to the "Music of the Kings", played on flutes and drums, accompanied by a lead vocalist. The Ijele sways to the steps of the kings and elders of the community and has been likened to an elephant because of its enormous size and slow movements. At the end of the performance the wearer is paraded and celebrated for carrying the mask.

The Igbo are one of the peoples in modern Nigeria. It is thought that they first occupied the Awka-Orlu plateau, their heartland in the south-east of the country, 4,500 years ago. Now they number around 30 million people, inhabiting the rich, fertile crescent created by the lower Niger river. It is believed this people were one of the driving forces in the early development of the Iron Age in Africa. Most Igbo are Christian and practitioners of a traditional belief system. Early missionaries established schools in Igboland, enabling many to qualify as teachers, doctors and other professionals.

The Igbo set up their own independent state of Biafra in Eastern Nigeria in 1967, but it was crushed by the Nigerian government in 1970. However, they have retained a distinct language and cultural identity. The celebrated writer Chinua Achebe is an Igbo, and his book, Things Fall Apart, tells the story of an Igbo society during the time of colonialism.

* Nancy Lee Preston is schools education manager and Louise Palmer is education officer at the Horniman Museum

* Africa 05 is the biggest celebration of African culture ever organised in Britain, including visual arts, cinema, literature, history, music, craft, and performing arts. www.bbc.co.ukbbcafricaafrica05

* The Horniman Museum is home of Britain's first permanent gallery to put the spotlight on African cultural history and artistic expression, and is joining in the Africa 05 celebrations with a raft of exhibitions and special events.

Marking the museum's sixth year open free to the public, the groundbreaking African Worlds exhibition offers glimpses of the world's second largest continent through the eyes of artists, diviners, anthropologists, elders and those forced into exile. Further information at www.horniman.ac.uk

To book a free Around Africa session

Tel: 020 8699 1872 ext 157


Art and design

KS1: Work together on a giant class mask, using fabric, feathers, paper, found objects and safety pins. Each pupil creates one part of the mask inspired by an animal, focusing on patterns, texture and colour. Attach the completed fabric pieces to a parachute with safety pins in order to bring it to life.

KS2: Buy a tarpaulin and a variety of coloured electrical tapes to use as a "drawing" tool. After pupils have sketched their animal pattern, use strips of tape to "draw" it on the tarpaulin. Each student then gets under the tarpaulin to bring the Ijele to life.

KS23: In times of trouble, the entire community traditionally helped in the building of the Ijele, by providing food, time and inspiration. Which artists have worked to create awareness about troubling issues, poverty, global warming and natural disasters? Sketch ideas for a work of art to examine an issue close to students' hearts.

KS2-4: Research performance art and discuss how the Ijele fits into this rich tradition. The community collectively owns the Ijele; do we have works of art that are collectively owned in a similar way in Britain? If so, which ones and why? What role does art provide in cultural identity today? Challenge students to work in groups to create the largest Ijele-inspired masks they can. Give each group the same materials.

* For more learning resources, visit: www.horniman.ac.ukeducationschlearning.php

Horniman Museum, 100 London Road, Forest Hill, London SE23 3PQ Tel: 020 8699 1872 x 154

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