Art from the Ijo Spirit World

by Martha G. Anderson
Alfred University

Unguzo masquerade in a performance sponsored by Martha G. Anderson. Olugbobiri, Ondewari clan. Central Ijo peoples, Nigeria, 1992. Photo by Martha G. Anderson.

Water spirit masks, or owumo, belong to the same tradition as the bush monster masks which appear in other African villages, but their aggressive behavior has more to do with cartoonish entertainment than frightful intimidation.  Maskers behave unpredictably, combining skill in executing complicated dance steps with an ability to 'sweeten' the performance by exploiting the element of surprise.  They often enter the arena by slashing through palm frond fences of the type that formerly kept evil forces from penetrating Ijo villages.  Armed with weapons, they spend much of their time chasing people, and may even lash out at their attendants.  Drummers sit behind pole fences for protection, but maskers can suddenly dive through these barriers to attack them.  Though ordinarily playful, masks can inflict wounds on unwary spectators; some watch performances from the safety of canoes, but others delight in provoking the masks to pursue them, then jump in the water to escape.