Ikenga figure, Nigeria, first half 20th century

Africa | Ikenga figure from the Igbo people of Nigeria | 1st half of the 20th century | Wood

“The Igbo peoples are known for their dedication to individual accomplishment and a system of titles based on earned status: ikenga are the sculptural concentration of this focus on achievement made into a figural shrine. Offerings to ikenga, altars to success, are meant to ensure accomplishment in many ventures: spiritual, economic, political, and military. The large size, complexity, and iconography of the Princeton work, created by a sculptor working in the Nteje area of eastern Nigeria, confirm its position as a communal ikenga as opposed to a personal one. As such, it belonged to a family, village, or age grade, and offerings made to it supported the group’s endeavors rather than the personal deeds of its members. Communal ikenga were ceremonially paraded at the annual ikenga festival in a show of community solidarity when all males born the previous year were brought before them.

The work’s iconography reveals the elevated status of its ownership group. Striations representing ichi scarification marks cover the forehead. Ichi marks were the prerogative of an ozo titleholder, the Igbo system of hierarchical titles based on personal integrity, wealth, and achievement. Other indications of high rank include a staff of authority, elephant tusk, and ivory anklets. Horns, physical representations of power and aggression, are the one constant on all ikenga figures regardless of size, sculptural style, or, most importantly, the rank of the owner. In a demonstration of his sculptural virtuosity and creativity, the Igbo artist has elaborated what are frequently simple curved horns into a complex openwork headdress of sacred pythons, the embodiments of the Igbo goddess Idemili. Overall the superstructure is reminiscent of many masks of the Mgbedike type. Mgbedike masqueraders sometimes wear costumes made of cloth or metal plates that resemble the figure’s layered shirt. The references to this masquerade suggest a powerful male presence.
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