The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Art from the Ijo Spirit World

by Martha G. Anderson
Alfred University

War canoe appearing at celebrations in honor of the clan chief. Ekowe, Bomo clan. Central Ijo artist, Nigeria, 1979. Photo by Martha G. Anderson. 

The Niger River forms a vast network of waterways, tropical forests, and mangrove swamps before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  The Ijo have lived in this remarkable environment for several millennia, and their beliefs echo its striking contrasts between land and water, rainy and dry; Ijo art and ritual often involve canoes and other prominent features of the riverain landscape.  Unlike their relatives in the eastern delta, who were heavily involved in trade and created a series of city-states, Ijo living west of the Nun River supported themselves largely by farming and fishing; their clans were united only by descent and allegiance to common war gods.  These gods no longer honor warriors for taking human lives, but the Central and Western Ijo continue to value masculine strength and assertiveness.  References to their warlike past abound in shrines, rituals, and masquerades, and ceremonial war canoes still appear at festivals, including those held for war gods.