Monday, 29 July 2019


Idia Mask - British Museum
Source: Wikimedia

" Know whence you came, if you know from whence you came, there are absolute no limitations to where you can go"

This James Baldwin quote resonated deeply with me from when it was first encountered as it not only bolstered my pride in my rich Benin heritage, but it further strengthened an inner resolve to continually fan the embers of that heritage with special emphasis on its art and architecture. As children, we were deliberately exposed to various aspects of the Benin culture by our father in the form of related art and books. Till date, the Idia mask occupies pride of place in the living room of my childhood home.

There are so many aspects of the Benin heritage to celebrate notably its arts especially masterpieces such as the Benin bronzes and the Idia mask which has an interesting history surrounding its creation.

Such was the reverent bond between mother and son that Oba Esigie who ruled the Benin Kingdom in the 16th century (about 1504 – 1550) instituted the title of Iyoba (Queen Mother) as a form of gratitude to his beloved mother for her unwavering support and guidance.  Renowned for both her mystical powers and sagacity, Queen Idia was instrumental in the success of her son’s numerous military campaigns to expand and defend the kingdom most notably the Idah war, where she assisted her son to mobilize men and resources to rout the enemy. The Kingdom of Idah also known as the Northen Igala Kingdom is located in Benue State, North Central Nigeria. 

Not done with the creation of the Iyoba title in honour of his powerful mother and closest adviser, Oba Esigie further commissioned several masks depicting the Iyoba in all her grandeur. The Oba wore the mask around his chest region during commemorative ceremonies such as the Ugie Iyoba (Festival of the Iyoba)  Five original ivory versions of the beloved mask are known to be in existence  but all of them were taken from their initial location in Oba Ovoranmen’s inner chambers during the British punitive expedition that sacked the Benin Kingdom in 1897. These five masks are currently located at The British Musuem- London, Metropolitan Museum of Art-New York, Linden Museum-Stuttgart, Germany, Seattle Art Musuem and the last in an undisclosed private collection. It is believed that the five masks were created by the same artist possibly from the Igbesanwan Guild of Royal Ivory Carvers. 

The two ivory masks at the British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art are almost identical measuring Height (238mm) Width (127mm) Depth (83mm). For both masks, the pupils and rims of the eyes are inlaid with iron. The same iron inlaying was applied to the two deep grooves in the forehead. The application of iron can best be described as pure 'engineering' genius ahead of its time since the iron inlays served as reinforcement to the aforementioned openings which would likely have disintegrated without the application of this technique.
Idia Mask - Metropolitan Museum, New York
Source: Wikimedia
Side view of the Idia Mask - Metropolitan Museum, New York
The hairdo depicted in the masks is the Uguakpata hairdo which is a special haircut all grades of Bini chiefs wear. Both of these masks are characterized by crowns which include Portuguese figures. The Uguakpata hairdo of the mask is crowned with a row of repetitively carved heads of an European roman catholic bishop. The long hair and the flowing beard identify the head as that of a European wearing the zucchetto (a skull cap) worn only by priests of the Bishop rank.The British Museum mask has eleven figures in all while the Metropolitan Museum's mask crown has an alternate arrangement of Portuguese figures and mud-fish. 

Close-up detail of decoration of Uguakpata hairdo of the mask with the European head motif

African art it has been said is never art just for art’s sake. Less cannot be said of Benin art which was created solely for historical record keeping. The insertion of the European religious figure ostensibly depicts the visit of a high-ranking religious figure in that era. During Oba Esigie’s reign, the Benin Empire and Portugal maintained extremely close trade and religious ties with the Oba purportedly converting to Christianity. This era saw the building of many churches in the Benin Empire were manned by Portuguese priests.
Idia Mask - British Museum
Source: Wikimedia

It was the British Museum version of the mask that was replicated by Erhabor Emokpae as the official emblem of the Festival of Arts and Culture FESTAC 77, hence its popular referral as the FESTAC mask. FESTAC ’77 also known as the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture was a major international festival held in Lagos, Nigeria from January 15, 1977 to February 12, 1977. The reproduction was necessitated after the rejection of Nigeria’s request to borrow the original mask for the festival purposes. A whopping amount of two million pounds (£ 2,000,000) was reportedly offered as payment for the loan of the mask which was rejected by the British authorities.

Poster for FESTAC '77 with picture of the reproduced Idia Mask by Erhabor Emokpae
Source: Google Images
The Idia mask is considered among the Metropolitan Museum of Art's most celebrated and prized possessions. Queen’s College Art Historian Robert Goldwater, one of the Met Museum's first directors referred to the Idia Mask as “the best object of its kind known, nor will any others ever turn up”. Such is the allure of this 16th century masterpiece till this day that a dummy version was featured in the Marvel Comics blockbuster movie, Black Panther, in the scene where the main antagonist, Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) visited the British Museum ostensibly to steal a tribal mask.  

Killmonger at the British Museum -scene from Black Panther movie
Source: Google Images

The less popular 'sibling' mask at the Linden Museum, Stuttgart, Germany is markedly different from the others as it was decorated with priceless ukele (royal)  red beads and the crown of the Uguakpata hairdo in this instance is composed entirely of mud-fish figures. Due to its ability to live both on land and water, the mud-fish held special significance in the ancient Benin kingdom and the creature was used to symbolize the Oba’s human and divine attributes. 

Idia Mask- Linden Museum, Stuttgart, Germany
Source: Wikimedia
An interesting fact worthy of mention is that when the Idia masks were being created in the 16th century, the Benin Empire was experiencing its second golden architecture and art era that also saw the creation of famous Benin works of art such as the bronze wall plaques and life size bronze busts depicting various Obas of Benin. About the same period, across several oceans in far away Europe, Italy was at the height of the High Renaissance period (1500 -1530) with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Raphael and Donato Bramante holding sway in the architecture and art scenes. Notable Italian masterpieces created around the same time with the Idia masks include Sistine Chapel ceiling 1508 - 1512, Moses 1513 - 1516 both by Michaelangelo and Mona Lisa (1503 - 05/07) by Leonardo Davinci.

"Moses" marble sculpture 1513 - 16 by Michelangelo at the tomb of Pope Julius II
Source: Google Images
With plans underway for the construction of the Benin Royal Musuem to house artefacts that have found their way to other continents, the beloved Idia masks may soon be back to their rightful places of origin. 

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