Tuesday, 16 May 2017

An Ekpo Mask (Object M9) from the UCL Ethnographic Collections

Figure 1: The Ekpo Mask
This object is an Ekpo mask (Figure 1) from the Anang tribe in south eastern Nigeria. It is made of wood, raffia, and various other materials. The main mask (face, headband, and upper lip/jaw) is carved from a single piece of wood and painted black. The bottom lip/jaw and ears are also made of painted wood, and they are tethered to the main mask with a variety of ties. In the back, a headdress made of raffia in different forms (braided, woven, bunches) is attached in several places (Figure 2). A large leather flap is attached to the mask between the raffia headdress and the left ear.
Figure 2: Raffia headdress and leather flap (left)
The Ekpo masks are sacred objects used to manage the village and handle crises that occur, such as handling domestic disputes or fighting with other groups. The word Ekpo means “ancestor” or “ghost”, and Ibibio ancestors are believed to be communicating through the masks to their living descendants.
Lightweight woods, such as the ukot (palm wine tree), are used in the making of Ekpo masks so that the wearer can perform tasks and fight without being encumbered by its weight. The raffia headdresses are made of dried palm fronds, and they are designed to fall to the wearer’s waist. The masks are worn along with a knee-length raffia skirt, and the wearer’s exposed skin is covered in charcoal powder (Figure 3).

Figure 3: An Ekpo Maquerader
Visible deterioration includes the fading, wearing, and chipping of the black paint on the wooden components (Figure 4); this most likely began during the mask’s use but other factors, such as incorrect light levels or fluctuating temperature and relative humidity levels, could also be factors. Overall dirt, dust, and contaminants on the surface of the mask can be seen. There is evidence of flight holes made from woodworms throughout the main mask (Figure 5), and the leather flap attached to the back of the mask is dehydrated and stiff. The raffia has become dry and brittle - possibly due to incorrect temperature and relative humidity but also due to naturally occurring depolymerisation - and fragments of the headdress continue to break off (Figure 6).
Figure 4: Example of paint deterioration on the attached jaw
Figure 5: Evidence of flight holes made by woodworms

           Figure 6: Detail of raffia fragments breaking off of the headdress

One of the biggest conservation concerns was the improper storage mount and box that the mask was housed in. The mount did not provide enough support for the mask’s attachments and caused strain on the ties that held them on; in addition, the mask was difficult to remove from the box and was not easily viewable. This problem has been solved as Thea Christophersen, who created a new storage box and mount that addresses these concerns (Figure 7).

Figure 7: New storage mount


Akpan, J. (1994). Ekpo Society Masks of the Ibibio. African Arts, 27(4), pp.48-53.

Caneva, G., Nugari, M. and Salvadori, O. (2008). Plant Biology for Cultural Heritage : Biodeterioration and Conservation. 1st ed. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute.
Ebong, I. (1995). The Aesthetics of Ugliness in Ibibio Dramatic Arts. African Studies Review, 38(3), pp.43-59.
Hickin, N. (1981). The Woodworm Problem. 3rd ed. East Grinstead: RENTOKIL LTD.
Offiong, D. (1982). The Process of Making and the Importance of the Ekpo Mask. Anthropologica, 24(2), pp.193-206.

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2016-17), one of the core courses of the UCL MA  Principles of Conservation. As part of their assessed work for this course, students were asked to investigate objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections at the UCL Department of Anthropology. Here they present a summary of their main conclusions. We hope you enjoy our work! Comments are most welcome.

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