230919 - African Mummy Helm mask - Nigeria.


African Mumuye Helm mask, Nigeria.
Hand carved from a single piece of wood, with color pigments.
Long: 38 cm.

Masks of the Benue river area are typically abstract and schematic (see Warrens and Nooter, African Art in American Collections, Washington, 1989, p. 296). The present example is a “female” mask, also referred to colloquially as the “grandmother” or “old woman” type. Its large, orblike round eyes, grooved hairstyle in relief and open projecting mouth are typical of Mumuye female masks. These masks are used during the Vabong ceremony, which constitutes the fifth phase of one of the Mumuye initiation rituals. During the Vabong, masks representing both male and female spirits were brought out as a signal for the initiates to perform ceremonial whipping (see Neyt, Mumuye, Paris, 2006, p. 42). For a similar example see Neyt, ibid., cat. no. 765

The Mumuye people reside in northeastern Nigeria, specifically on the left bank of the Benue River. Their agricultural practices revolve around cultivating sorghum, millet, and yams. The Mumuye remained largely isolated until the late 1950s due to the challenging access to their rocky hills and savanna lands. Consequently, very little was known about them until the 1960s.

Notably, Mumuye artists gained recognition for their unique wooden statues, which were only discovered in 1968. These statues consistently exhibit elongated body features. Although the Mumuye hold great reverence for their ancestors, their artistic creations do not represent them directly but rather embody protective spirits. It was not uncommon for a single figure or mask to serve multiple purposes simultaneously.

One of their distinct mask types is the Sukwava, characterized by a slender neck beneath a small head with prominent ears. Originally used during pre-war ceremonies, these masks are now worn during rain-making rituals and healing practices.

The Mumuye differentiate the gender of their figures and masks based on the shape of the ears. Only Mumuye women elongate their earlobes, offering a key clue for determining the gender of a particular figure.

Elsy Leuzinger, Die Kunst von Schwarz-Afrika, Zurich, 1970, cat. no. N. 38 (listed)
Ernst Winiski, Gesichter Afrikas/Visages d'Afrique/Faces of Africa, Lucerne, 1972, pp. 86-87