This cap headdress illustrates the vibrant tradition of ceremonial dance in southeastern Nigeria around the delta of the Cross River. The crowning element of a full-body costume, a cap headdress is worn atop the head, identifying the dancer as a spirit, ancestor, human, or animal.
Hide-covered masks such as this one were produced from the later nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth. Although several cultural groups in the area have historically employed cap headdresses, the style and naturalism of this work mark it as the creation of an Efut artist.
The head is sculpted from a single block of wood, as are each of its elaborate swirls of hair. Untreated animal hide, probably antelope, is secured to the form with discreetly placed tacks and coils of twine. Small wooden pegs in the upper forehead, suggesting short-cropped hair, have been lost, leaving holes around the hairline. The rich patina of the headdress results from the combination of natural oils applied regularly to preserve the hide and the soot accumulated during storage in fire-heated houses. The basketry-weave base was used to affix ties to support the headdress on the dancer’s head.
This headdress is believed to depict a young woman at the threshold of maturity. The exceptional smoothness of the animal hide across the figure’s face reinforces a sense of her youth. The figure’s elaborate hairstyle is characteristic both of the ornate patterns that young women wore at their coming-of-age ceremonies and of the symbolism of nsibidi, an ideographic language practiced by secret societies in the Cross River region during the early twentieth century. In nsibidi, swirls commonly represented concepts of womanhood as well as sexual maturity.
The figure’s beauty is typical of a character (known as Ikem) in a secular dance form that emerged during the early twentieth century in response to colonization. Organized around a "beauty and the beast" theme, these dances were calculated not to offend the sensibilities of British colonial officers or Christian missionaries. The persistence of regional dance, even if in modified form, both during and after the colonial era, demonstrates its dynamism as a cultural tradition.
Swirling into motion at initiations, funerals, and agriculture rites, this sculpture would have appeared lifelike with the hair the center of attention. Mimicking the hairstyles of young girls at their coming-of-age ceremonies, the carved headdress was covered in painted animal skin to enhance its realism. A double line of holes along the figure’s hairline formerly held wooden pegs, which represented small pieces of hair that were not swept into the curling braids. Palm oil gives the skin a glossy appearance, and individual wooden teeth, which are visible through the smiling lips, complete the illusion. The headdress was secured to the top of the performer’s head by a basketry cap and worn with a flowing gown.
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collections, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).
Karin Dienst, "Perspective on: Inspirations of African art," Princeton Weekly Bulletin Volume 99, Number 6 (December 14, 2009): 8.
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collection, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).
"Selected checklist of objects in the collection of African art," Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 58, no. 1/2 (1999): p. 77–83.
Mark D. Mitchell, "On the installation of an Efut headdress," Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 58, no. 1/2 (1999): p. 54–61.
"Acquisitions of the Art Museum 1997," in "A Window into Collecting American Folk Art: The Edward Duff Balken Collection at Princeton," special issue, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 57, no. 1/2 (1998): p. 164-208.
Life Objects: Rites of Passage in African Art Saturday, September 19, 2009 - Sunday, January 24, 2010
An Educated Eye: The Princeton University Art Museum Collection (Friday, February 22, 2008 - Sunday, June 15, 2008)