Lot: 223

Anthropomorphic dance crest

Nigeria, Cross River, Ogoja Province, Ekoi (Ejagham), Akparabong

Provenance Size Hammer price
Okpun Echum, Adijinkpor Village, Ogoja Province, Southeast Nigeria
Knut Byström (1912-1993), Östersund, Sweden (1953)
Family Estate (since 1993)
H: 14.6 inch 6000 EUR

wood, animal skin, tin plate, pigments, wickerwork,
The Akparabong (also Ekparabong) are an Ekoi (or Ejagham) clan living along the Aweyong, an Upper Cross River tributary.

They produce skin-covered dance crests and helmet masks of a distinctive style. The faces are characterised by a high, bulging forehead, prominent teeth with notched incisors and are usually adorned with elaborate painted decoration.

A comparable headdress published in Wittmer, 1978, p. 79, ill. 187.

The present headdress was collected on site by Knut Byström in 1953, when he visited (quote) "some of the savage and primitive" tribes in the upper reaches of the Cross River in Nigeria. The acquisition of the skin-covered crest is mentioned in a letter written by Byström on 20 October 1953.

He wrote down the fruits of his field work in the treatise "Notes on the Akparabong Clan". Here we find not only an illustration of the headdress, but also photos of its previous owner, Okpun Echum, who was chief of the village of Adijinkpor at the time. In one of the photos he wears a goatskin over his left arm, according to Byström a sign that he belonged to the company of "brave men", which means that he captured many enemy heads.

The society of the "brave men" refers to the "egbe", "ngbe" or "leopard society", which is the oldest secret society in the Cross River area. It is an all-male society that probably originated from an association of warriors. It gained particular importance during the Atlantic slave trade.

In former times these dance crests were said to have been made of real human skulls from killed enemies. They were exhibited on special trophee parades, worn by young men as a sign of manliness. In areas whose population was constantly under the threat of raids, clan feuds, tribal warfare or slave hunts it comes as no surprise that the skill of a young man in combat was measured by this kind of practice.

Lateron the real skulls were subsituted by wooden replicas. Analogously, their meaning changed from a trophy cult to a cult of ancestors. Correspondingly they were no longer used for war masquerades but at initiation rites and in funeral ceremonies. Byström reports that when a prominent man died, seven warrant chiefs performed a certain dance around the corpse, wearing these skin-covered attachments (Byström, p. 19).

The headdresses have a realistic, but not a portrayal character. They do not represent one specific ancestor. In fact they were handed down from one generation to another, thus - as a whole - embodying the noble doings of every ancestor, who ever possessed it.

The use of human skin for coating the wooden core is just vaguely proved, commonly the skins of antelope, ape or sheep were used.

Wittmer, Marcilene K. & William Arnett, Three Rivers of Nigeria, Atlanta 1978, p. 79, ill. 187
Knut Byström: "Notes on the Ekparabong Clan", in: Orientalia Suecana, Vol. III, Fasc.1, Uppsala 1954, p. 3 - 26, published on p. 17, Fig. 15 (two views)