Igbo Art in Social Context
by Herbert M. Cole
Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara
Ijele is a huge, spectacular mask carried on its dancer's head and comprised of cloth over a wood or vine armature; miniature stuffed cloth images of humans, animals, and masqueraders: appliqué cloth panels; schematic plants and flowers; all topped with the image of a horseman leader. Made by male tailors in secrecy, it is expensive both to construct and perform. Ijele used to appear only rarely, at the second burial festival mounted for exceptionally powerful men who had huge yam farms, many wives, and many children. Ijele can be interpreted as a sky world into which its structure, its tree and symbolic cloth anthill ascends, the earth world above the wood disc that rests on the masker’s head (and is ringed by the sacred python, Earth’s messenger), and the underworld of ancestors and spirits (and masqueraders) beneath the disc and behind the appliqué panels that hang down from it. Masqueraders and genre figures cavort in the braches of the “tree” – the sort that shelters a chief’s gathering of elders. Hence the ijele is a prime symbol of leadership.
Nowadays ijele (and other Igbo masks) appear in a concrete soccer stadium in a modern city, as the crowning event in a day long procession of hundred of varied masquerades. Ijele, however, is the elephant, mother, and king of all masks. Leopards and elephants and eagles often appear among the stuffed images attached to an ijele.
Richly symbolic, ijele references the importance of human and ancestral leadership and the fecund spirit power considered inherent in anthills, whose queens are among the more fertile and prolific creatures on earth. It embraces valued imported materials in its use of cloth, yarn, and mirrors, and it exemplifies the dynamism of Igbo art in its stately, pulsating, radiant, and aggrandizing performance. Like mbari houses (see page two of this essay), each ijele is a microcosm, a world renewed, and a tribute to ancestors, the gods, Igbo propensities for progressive change and the foreign, for fertility and renewal.