Igbo Art in Social Context

by Herbert M. Cole
Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara

Okoroshi Masker (Okoroshioma; oma = good, beautiful) with "female" attendant, from Ogbaku, 1982. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.

 

The Okoroshi water spirit masquerade still (as of the mid-1980s) performs for six weeks at the height of the rainy season, even though it has become more secular and less powerful than it was earlier in the twentieth century. Maskers bless the ripening yam crop and prepare the community for the New Yam Festival, which occurs the day after these spirits have departed the village to return to their homes in the clouds.

An extensive and locally explicit dualism marks this masquerade. White or light colored masks are female, benign, and represent the order of the village, whereas dark ones are male, more or less dangerous, and associated with the mystery of the bush or forest. White masks are said to come down from cumulus clouds; dark, ugly masculine masks from gray rain clouds.

The five to seven light Okoroshioma masks that emerge each season dance prettily, to lyrical music, before large crowds; they are essentially entertaining, and fine dancers are chosen to embody these spirits. In some cases, as here, they will be accompanied by contingents of male Okoroshi members dressed up as women.