The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Art from the Ijo Spirit World

by Martha G. Anderson
Alfred University

Mask performing at festival for the clan war god. Olobiri, Kolokuma clan. Central Ijo artist, Nigeria, 1978. Photo by Martha G. Anderson.


The Ijo sometimes claim that they copied or stole their masks from water spirits, but spirits can also approach people and instruct them to perform masquerades.  Though masquerades benefit communities by averting illness, bringing children, and ensuring prosperity, they are largely secular events; performances typically begin by inviting spirits to come out of the water and play.  Ijo living West of the Nun River do not have masking societies comparable to the Kalabari Ekine; individuals or families who own masks typically perform at funerals, festivals, and shrine renewals.  The Ijo consider all masks, even those that depict anthropomorphic figures and land animals, to be water spirits.  Composite masks mix skull-like human features with an assortment of fins, fishtails, and other aquatic forms; these face skyward when worn, imitating the way spirits look as they float in the water.  The dancers complete their transformation into water spirits by wearing costumes that incorporate a fishtail form.