Igbo Art in Social Context

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

Okoroshi Amara (lit. "paddle"), Mgbala Agwa, 1983. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.


Deliberately ambiguous and boundary-crossing is the unique spirit called "Paddle," who appears at the very end of the Okoroshi season, at night, whereas all other white masks dance only during daylight. Paddle is considered simultaneously a foolish virgin and a wise old man. Other white-faced maskers neither sing nor talk, yet it is Paddle's job to move from compound to compound on the final night singing praises of important men and their lineages. Paddle also blesses all pregnant women with eggs they bring to him/her, just as other maskers bless the yam crop. This masker is at once mournful and frivolous and serious, and in many ways its character sums up the complexities and contradictions of this male performance organization, which is backed by powerful water spirits in whose shrine some of the stronger masks are stored.

The Okoroshi masquerade plays upon gender relations and the often harsh realities of village life. It is an all male cult that both harasses and glorifies women, and that--somewhat ironically--characterizes the male gender as dangerous and ugly and untrustworthy. Overall, the masquerade seems to say that life is pretty difficult, dark and complex, and far from the simple light/dark opposition implicit in the two basic mask categories.