all photographs by the author unless otherwise noted
The Ukwa performance started when members entered the dance arena carrying their long swords. Most members wore red, black, and yellow sashes neatly fitted over their white long shirts (Fig. 1). Wrappers were elegantly tied around their waists. The warriors paraded in synchronized and choreographed motions, until suddenly breaking formation to engage in aggressive and combative fencing bouts. The duels gave way to the Ukwa version of Mkpókpóró, a masquerader dressed in a loosely hanging black gown, adorned with an animal skull on its crest (Figs. 2, 14). The ominous character moved fluidly as if floating from one direction to another. Mkpókpóró serves as Ukwa's emissary, clearing the dance arena for members and the next act: Okpon-Ibuot.
Loosely translated as “Mr. and Mrs. Big Head,” Okpon-Ibuot is a male/female pair of masqueraders known for their performance dramatizing the social and sexual tensions between husband and wife (Figs. 3–4). The male masker donned a Janus helmet mask, finished with commercial paints and decorated with vulture feathers inserted into holes located on the crown of the mask. He was dressed in a loosely fitting fiber net costume and wielded a metal spear in his right hand. His female counterpart also wore a painted wooden Janus helmet mask. Three colorful plumes were inserted into the top of her head. Her dress, much more ornate and decorative, featured a foreign silk wrapper fixed to the àkàsì (a locally made cane hoop) tied to the masker's hips.1
During the performance, the male character enticed members of the audience to caress his wife. After a brave viewer took him up on the offer, Mr. Big Head became enraged, protecting his wife by chasing and threating the violator. Meanwhile, Mrs. Big Head's choreography seductively displayed her sexuality for her husband. In response, Mr. Big Head assumed the role of an overly controlling, envious husband. The male/female dance drama continued in this way for about forty-five minutes. The dance is locally interpreted as a satire of marriage; the choreography is meant to stimulate reflection on issues of jealously, trust, emotional turmoil, sexual tension, and permissiveness. The display was performed by an Efik and Efut Ukwa faction based in Calabar as part of a commissioned play during a funeral in Akpabuyo, a little less than ten miles east of the city.2
Crucial to this essay is that the commissioned dance duo, Okpon-Ibuot, was not an original part of Ukwa, but a recent incorporation into the warrior society. A puzzling yet important question is why did a war dance integrate a parody of love into a traditionally aggressive and menacing herbalist society? And how did such an inclusion influence Nnabo, a much more recent warrior-inspired society analyzed in the following pages, to become more visually pungent with its imagery and embrace a more violent demeanor during performance?
In seeking answers to this line of questioning, the recent innovations of the two prominent warrior-related societies in Calabar today, Ukwa and its more junior successor Nnabo, as well as other permutations developed by youths, will be placed within a broader historical narrative. With this I extend art historian Sidney Kasfir's work on Idoma warrior societies and her proposed historical model charting the change, dissemination, and survival of “concrete” sculptural forms (namely masks) of specific secret societies (Kasfir 1984: 186) to include a broader performative approach. In so doing, this analysis includes songs sung, instruments employed, dress, symbolism of costumes, added ornamentation, and dance choreographies when appropriate. The goal is to demonstrate the reasons why and to what ends have Calabar masquerade associations invented and reinvented themselves.3 In the end, I present a model of cultural reinvention of warrior societies in Calabar that may prove useful in postulating why African masquerade arts so readily change, and why this art form is one of the most artistically effervescent on the continent today. In the end, this article provides a microcosm of cultural reinvention of warrior societies in Calabar, linking this pattern of change to that of the Cross River skin-covered genre, while forging a dialogue between the two.
THE CULTURAL TRANSACTIONS OF THE CR
The Cross River region, encompassing southeastern Nigeria and West Cameroon, is an area well known for cultural and artistic mixing, making it ripe for an analysis of the artistic transactions and transformations of a specific genre of masquerades.4 Many cultures within this complex relied on membership-based cultural and political institutions, often referred to as masquerade societies, for governance, social order, status, and entertainment. Such associations and institutions employed both secret and public masquerade arts and rituals to reinforce political, judicial, and social stability through elaborate visual and performed productions. It is well documented that these institutions and their related masquerades and art forms were constantly traded, exchanged, and appropriated throughout the region, forming the complicated cultural matrix for which the Cross River is known.
Another important layer of exchange is Calabar, capital of the Nigerian side of the Cross River, which also served as an active port during the transatlantic slave and later palm oil trades from about 1650 to the early twentieth century. Efik traders situated along the coast in Calabar purchased Mgbe from their Ejagham neighbors, the well-known governmental society also known for its elaborate masquerade performances, and modified it into Ekpe to facilitate the international slaving commerce with European maritime traders. The Ekpe society soon became saturated with incoming material wealth, making their masquerade performances and dressing ensembles quite regal and extravagant (Fenton 2011, 2016). The international commerce and material goods that flooded Calabar undeniably influenced other associations such as warrior institutions not unlike Ukwa. Cross River cultures have long engaged in historical and cultural interaction through time and space—so much that anthropologist Keith Nicklin (1983) summarized this porous region as undergoing continual states of cultural dialogue.
Scholars investigating Cross River culture have addressed the history of artistic exchange along and outside the Cross River, linking the region's broader patterns of cultural interaction west to Cameroon's coastal lagoons and east to the Niger Delta (Nicklin and Salmons 1984; Wilcox 2002: 55; Röschenthaler 2006, 2011; Jones and Salmons 2011). Investigating masquerade diffusion and interaction in southeastern Nigeria, art historian Eli Bentor (2002 and this issue) suggested that a regional identity can be formulated when masquerades are understood through the historical interactions that shaped them. Building from this, I seek to demonstrate how the mechanisms of artistic and cultural transmission work within a specific genre from a specific locality.
This essay also aims to bring awareness to the ways in which artistic innovations are not unlike currencies, elevating the value, worth, and economic vitality of a given masquerade society. Expressive currencies are thus the creative ingredients—whether visual, vocal, or performative—that members develop to keep their arts fresh, new, and relevant within the commercial landscapes that best define the masquerade culture of Calabar. Elsewhere I have shown that the masquerade culture in the city of Calabar has transformed into a lucid business since the late 1970s and early 1980s (Fenton 2016). This essay therefore takes on the theme of how and why masks travel by analyzing why and how masquerades boost their value or currency through artistic innovation. Analysis of Ukwa, Nnabo, and other youth-inspired iterations reveal how economic motivation and historical awareness elucidate why certain artistic and cultural influences from near and far were and continue to be mixed and remixed. In returning to the male/female drama Okpon-Ibuot with which we started, it is important to recall that it was a later introduction into Ukwa. Indeed, the male/female dance duo was once part and parcel of a widely diffused genre of masks distinctively finished by covering a wooden form with skin.
THE SKIN-COVERED MASK GENRE
Without question, the skin-covered mask has become one of the quintessential objects defining the art of the Cross River Region within museum and gallery spaces across Europe and the United States (Fig. 5). The unique characteristic of covering a wooden mask with skin, its elusive meaning and prevalent diffusion in eastern Nigeria and west Cameroon, caught the eye of Cross River collectors, enthusiasts, and scholars alike over the last hundred years.5 Its popularity was not limited to foreigners, but was also quite sought after within the Cross River, since it was used in hunter associations, women's societies, witchcraft and medicinal agencies, and two groups especially important to this examination: warrior institutions and entertainers. In short, most associations throughout the entire region that employed masquerade most likely embraced skin-covered masks at one time or another.
Most scholarship on skin heads stressed the mapping of styles and artistic diffusion.6 In addition to the question of regional style, Nicklin (1974, 1979) identified three types of skin heads: cap masks that were tied to the top of a performers’ head, usually decorated with elaborate hairstyles; helmet masks often showcasing Janus faces; and a dome variety found in the upper Cross River. However fruitful these studies are, I aim to move beyond style in order to piece together a historical narrative regarding the artistic innovations invented and reinvented by the likes of Ukwa, Nnabo, and other permutations found in the city today.
Most agree that the skin-covered mask derived from warrior associations, commonly referred to as headhunting and challenge societies (Nicklin 1974: 8; Thompson 1978: 175; Blier 1980: 13, 99; Brain and Pollock 1971: 54). The plausible beginnings of the skin-covered mask developed from headhunting associations presenting freshly severed heads and human skulls to honor warriors’ accomplishments and physical prowess, often in the context of ritual and masquerade (Partridge 1905: 231; Talbot 1912/1969: 272, 411; Brain and Pollack 1971: 92).7 P.A. Talbot, a British colonial administrator who documented the Ejagham of the Oban district from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, photographed and documented an early performance of this type in which he described, “On its head it [the masquerader] bore a human skull, or rather dried head, the mouth of which was fixed open in a ghastly grin” (1912: 223–24).8 In precolonial and colonial accounts of Calabar, headhunting was not documented to the extent that it was in hinterland narratives.9 Most missionaries active in Calabar in the late 1800s and early 1900s frequently described observing human skulls as trophies and household decorations, alluding to them as mystical agents used in witchcraft. Needless to say, missionaries were eager to put an end to the use of severed heads and skulls in Calabar.
Showcasing severed heads as trophies of warriorhood quickly came to an end not long after Captain Beecroft sailed up the Cross River in 1842. Most have emphasized this date as crucial because it ushered increased European presence into the region. The establishment of church missions and the seeds of colonization were planted soon after. As colonization progressed, early masquerades became obsolete within the changes brought by Western influence. Talbot recorded a number of “clubs” or masquerade societies that become obsolete, only revived for special occasions (1912: 410–13). “Ukwa” and “Ikadum,” the latter a war dance in which the masker donned a skull, both appeared in Talbot's list of outdated societies (1912: 411). The inclusion of Ukwa as defunct is quite fascinating, for I have documented its popularity and contemporary vitality in present-day Calabar. If we accept Talbot's list and compare it to what I observed during my fieldwork, past members of Ukwa quite successfully revived the once diminishing and “dated” society.
In fact, in the early 1900s, not only were masquerade art forms modified, the secret societies and older associations themselves were disappearing due to the “progressive” status of church membership. Historian G.I. Jones narrated that Christian churches prohibited members from engaging in traditional societies and their masquerades. As a result, different masquerades took the place of older versions to appease colonial administration as well as conform to Christian ideology. In most cases, such masquerades diffused from neighboring versions or were revivals from various older associations (Jones 1984: 57). It is during this period that severed heads and skulls were replaced with masks carved out of wood and finished with skin.
An example of a secular masquerade deemed acceptable by colonial administration and church officials was a social drama called Ikem. Nicklin and art historian Jill Salmons traced the spread and change of this institution throughout the Cross River. They noted that despite its broad dissemination, preference was given to those masks covered with skin. The early permutation of Ikem skin heads was relatively consistent: a naturalistic female cap mask with an open mouth expression and an elaborate hairstyle. More recently, skin-covered helmet masks (often featuring multiple faces) seemed to replace the cap versions in and around the Calabar region (Nicklin and Salmons 1988: 123–44). Some speculated that a version of this play, known as Okpon-Ibuot, was introduced in Calabar between 1895 and 1901.10
A photograph from Calabar titled “Christmas Group,” dated to 1896, a year or two after the alleged founding of Ikem (or rather, Okpon-Ibuot) in Calabar, captures an assembly of European tourists, three of whom are seen holding what appear to be two skin-covered caps and one helmet mask (Fig. 6). All could possibly be Ikem, Okpon-Ibuot, or female “maiden” styles of skin heads.11 In looking more closely, the intimate way in which two of the tourists hold and fondle their “souvenirs” make it seem as though masks relating to this style were highly coveted by foreigners. Such evidence suggests that skin-covered masks were part of a much broader and much earlier network of patronage than originally thought.
However sought after it was, the phenomenon of covering a mask with skin was short lived. Three decades after Okpon-Ibuot's arrive in Calabar, Ikem or Okpon-Ibuot styled masks were being decorated with modern paints in lieu of being finished with skin. Such changes were seen as a popular deviation for not only African patrons, but also for European tastes (Jones 1984: 184).12 In fact, on the Nigerian side of the Cross River, by the 1970s the Ikem or Okpon-Ibuot styled skin heads all but disappeared, completely replaced by elaborately painted versions (Nicklin and Salmons 1988: 129).
Scholars concerned with the skin-covered mask have addressed this transformation from skin to modern paint with very few words, only offering brief statements, which in my opinion trip readers into falling prey to the authenticity trap (Jones 1984: 184, 197; Brain and Pollock 1971: 96; Nicklin 1974: 14, 197, 59 and 2000: 193; Nicklin and Salmons 1984: 35 and 1988: 143; Röschenthaler 1998).13 Because skin versions are so coveted in Western collectors’ houses and markets, painted versions attract very little interest, rendering them “less authentic.” African art history has long shown that modifications to art, and their corresponding genres, have and will always continue to materialize through time and space. This has long been the dilemma surrounding the label of “traditional” African art.
In her study on Dogon masks from Mali, anthropologist Polly Richards remarked, “Yet, once again, scholars have persisted in regarding all observed changes in the formal qualities of the masks as evidence of decline” (2005: 51). I contend that Richards’ astute observation certainly holds true with skin heads and painted ones. The change from skin to modern paints should not be seen as a decline, but as part of the history of the skin-covered genre. Indeed, if one were to travel to Calabar and the Nigerian side of the Cross River today, no one would encounter a skin head in situ.14 Masquerade genres featuring a wooden mask in the typical skin-covered style in recent years are instead adorned with enamel or acrylic paints (Figs. 7–8). It seems the painted version has persisted longer than its skinned predecessor—over eight decades— and shows no signs of ending.
In moving beyond a focus on the skin-covered mask alone— something that has occupied most who have examined this type of mask—I contend that consideration must be given to the forms that predated the skin-covered versions and hybrids thereof. By broadening discussion of the skin head to include those that came before and after, I propose a genre be identified that includes all related permutations. In doing so, a surprisingly similar pattern of artistic change within the skin-covered genre can be extended to the expressive currencies found among warrior associations in Calabar. Such patterns of artistic change, as I will show with Nnabo in the following paragraphs, are driven by economics and consumerism. I likewise suggest that the shift from severed heads to skulls to skin heads to, finally, paint, while initially motivated by colonial pressure, soon became a type of currency, especially in the realm of patronage.
Those who have addressed the change to skin heads from skulls and trophy heads in warrior-related contexts reject straightforward observation and mimesis as an artistic strategy. Instead scholars suggested ideas relating to notions of metamorphosis (Blier 1980: 17), that skin became a type of medicinal power in lieu of the severed head (Thompson 1981: 176), and that artists experimented more, rendering the act of beheading and the “psychic energy” of both slayer and slain in more expressive, abstract terms with wood and skin (Kasfir 2007: 128–30). Recent ethnographic data supports that skinheads were not a product of mere observation, but was more about money than something steeped in meaning.
Cultural custodians and an Okpon-Ibuot mask carver with whom I spoke informed me that skin covering was always about achieving a type of realism by showing off artistic ability with an unforgiving material. Skin covering was seen as valuable, expensive, and extraordinary. In the words of Chief Edem, the skin-covering technique was done “to show ability—that this was actually different [from other types of masks].”15 It seems as though skin covering was seen as a type of artistic currency, helping artists stand out to would-be patrons. And with the arrival of new materials, I speculate that modern paints were simply more sustainable, in addition to being fresh, in vogue, and thus in demand. Both techniques should be understood as expressive currencies temporally situated to the contexts that gave rise to them, driven by contemporary contexts, economics, and market demands, especially as artists competed with one another to procure patronage with the hope of fostering steady demands for their work.
A particularly popular and important wooden mask finished with paints still performed in Calabar today returns us to the Ukwa male/female pair: Okpon Ibuot. We also return the question that started our look at the skin-covered mask: Why was Okpon-Ibuot or Mr. and Mrs. Big Head, a Calabarian version of the Ikem male and female masking dance drama, imported into Calabar Ukwa? One possible interpretation comes from Efik cultural historian Chief Ita Bassey, who argues that Mkpókpóró was once called Ekong Ukwa, and instead of wearing a skull, as it does today, it donned a long-necked cap mask with a curvilinear coiffure, not unlike the Ikem styled cap varieties (1974: 11). Other cultural custodians in Calabar state that the Big Head masquerade was used in the Nsibidi execution society, and when it became obsolete, it was brought into Ukwa as a social play.16 Others informed me that the Big Head drama was inserted into Ukwa as a diversion and way to soften the harshness and aggressive quality expressed when members fence with one another.17 Still others told me it was the youths who brought the social drama into Ukwa as a way to reinvent and beautify a stagnant, outdated warrior society.18
Despite the myriad of contemporary local narratives, it seems likely that at the turn of the twentieth century, warrior societies were under colonial pressure to reinvent themselves, and so Ukwa did just that; the long-standing warrior society chose to include a popular, widespread, and proven male/female drama to temper the intensity of warriorhood. It is clear that Ukwa members were more interested in secularizing their performances for popular appeal, acceptance, and broader patronage, a model that points to not only colonial pressures, but also market-driven concerns, which may likewise explain the artistic alterations of the skin-covered genre. The junior war dance known as Nnabo draws much influence from Ukwa, which reinvented itself at the turn of the century not unlike the way the skinhead transformed—a pattern Nnabo seemed to emulate decades later, albeit in a harder, rougher manner, with a return to the human skull in the 1970s.
REBRANDING WARRIORHOOD WITH THE SKULL
Nnabo draws many influences from both city and hinterland masquerades. It is seen as a junior war dance and society to Ukwa, the more senior and long-standing warrior association. However, what makes Nnabo distinct is its rugged aggression, threatening behavior, and lastly, and perhaps most important, the use of human skulls and other skeletal remains adorning its masquerades. The only other scholars to attempt to make sense of Nnabo would have readers believe it is of precolonial origins and that it played a role in real warfare (Onyile and Slogar 2016: 70, 77).19 Both of these ideas are problematic misunderstandings very far from the truth. The cultural custodians of the society with whom I spoke firmly established the society's origins in the mid 1950s and stated that its chief influence was the Ejagham cultural institution known as Obasinjom from Akamkpa, a Local Government Area just north of the Calabar province.20
Obasinjom, simply referred to as njom by my Calabar teachers, makes use of charms, medicines, herbalism, and masquerade to detect and combat negative witchcraft.21 The masquerade costume of Obasinjom consists of a long black gown with a raffia fringe adorning the bottom of the garment, arm cuffs, and top of the masker's head, appearing not unlike long hair. Cowrie shells often serve as decorative elements, either appearing as linear designs or encircling the costume's eye holes. Resting on the raffia coiffure, a wooden crocodile-like mask is securely fixed. Vulture features prominently embellish the wooden cap mask spread across the head in a fan-like manner. All of these qualities, save for the wooden mask and feathers, are found in most Nnabo masquerades.
Obasinjom's imprint is certainly clear with the most general type of mask, simply referred to as Nnabo or more formally, Idem Nnabo (Fig. 9). It too fashions a style of dress reminiscent of a long cloth gown. However, it is quite different from Obasinjom since this Nnabo masker wears a tight-fitting esuk not unlike Ekpe/Mgbe masqueraders. In the Nnabo context, the esuk becomes a type of undergarment, worn beneath a tiered raffia headdress with a rectangular cloth attached in front of the masker, hanging all the way to the ground. This loosely cascading cloth becomes the costume's façade and thus its “mask.” It also bears colorful raffia trim that accents the color scheme of the entire composition. Colors are usually chosen to enhance the central image embroidered on the cascading cloth façade.
Decorative images are as diverse as the wide array of color schemes; no set formula exists. Depictions—either cloth embroidery, outlined with cowrie shells, or simply silhouetted with the latter material—visually highlight Nnabo's eclectic sources and interests. For example, skulls and crossbones are common and are usually found on a predominantly red color scheme that serves as an obvious symbol for blood and aggression (see Fig 9). Images of mermaids (references to Ndem, the Efik water spirit), dogs, and machetes are also popular. Another common design references the country's coat of arms, in which the entire mask is green and white, appearing not unlike a kinetic Nigerian flag (Fig. 10).
Along with Obasinjom as the chief influence, other local appropriations are easily discernible in Idem Nnabo. Along with the use of the esuk as an undergarment, most Nnabo cultural custodians indicate the tiered raffia headdress was introduced later, soon after the society's conception. It was inspired by the popularity of Ekpe/Mgbe masquerades in the later 1950s. Today's more elaborate tierd raffia prototype is said to have started in the late 1960s.22 Another major local influence is the way in which Nnabo “talks anyhow,” an artistic currency directly taken from Akata, a long-standing society that openly reveals the secrets of wrongdoers during night performances.23
All Nnabo masks employ Akata's disguised voice. In the context of Nnabo, the hidden voice becomes a type of veil that openly criticizes and challenges pertinent issues and raises awareness about contemporary topics. This is best understood through the medium of song. Nnabo does not own a long-standing catalogue of songs like Ekpe/Mgbe, for instance. Songs and their lyrics are random, usually based on current events or what members might feel is pertinent for the audience to ponder. For example, the following Efik song was repeatedly sung during a Nnabo performance commissioned by a Qua-Ejagham age grade, celebrating their formal formation in 2009:
Okuk aran ison ke ada ebop Abuja. (2x)
It is our oil money that they used in building Abuja. (2x)
The poignant lyrics were a clear critique of government and the continued issues surrounding Nigeria and its national and global oil politics. This type of song is precisely the temperament audiences revel in and come to expect from Nnabo. Nnabo's lyrics are more open ended and not as individually damaging as Akata. Such a randomly broad yet critical tone ensures Nnabo will be an instant crowd pleaser. But one may ask how does such a relatively new masquerade association speak with such an uncensored filter? This is where the use of human remains matters most.
The use of human skulls is the most noticeable and distinctive expressive currency for which Nnabo is known. The Idem Nnabo typically features one to three human skulls surmounting the very top of the mask (Fig. 11). The skulls serve not only as protean visual signifiers of death and fear, but are crucial for understanding the meaning of the mask's choreography. Nnabo members conceptualize the use of the human skull as a means to better affect performance agency and elicit fear by the incorporation of what many have articulated to me as an element of the “mystical.” Before performance, libation and sacrifices are offered to the skulls in an effort to appease and “charge” the deceased spirits of the skulls, who were either powerful members,24 wicked persons who were widely known to be violent or disturbed, or persons who died an especially difficult or gruesome death.
With sacrificial offerings freshly made, the skulls are “gingered” or encouraged to haunt the performer. This is a crucial part of the choreography, which firmly entrenches Nnabo performance as a show of mystical bravado. The performers’ goal is to endure those wicked energies and not succumb to the intangible onslaught, but channel the threating forces into a greater performative affect for the gathered audience. It is at this moment that the masker is most vulnerable. In the words of a longtime member of Nnabo, “Sometimes you can dance it and it carries you off.”25 On some very rare occasions, I have witnessed Nnabo performers who failed and became overrun with wickedness; before he fell or unleashed havoc onto the audience, members quickly carried the performer out of view.26 During this masculine game of mystical wits, the choreography remains quite individualized and unrestricted. The only semblance of performative universality from dancer to dancer is observed during the climax, when the malevolent foe is bested.
The dance move or Nnabo breakdown, also highly individualized yet structured at the same time, features the masker spreading his legs just beyond shoulder length, arms stretched outward, creating a ring-like posture. His body then drops downward, as if executing a standing squat, rhythmically shaking and vibrating his hips and upper body. As the performer executes this move, the weight of the entire mask shifts to his thighs and buttocks. The move is complete when the masker rises once again, only to dart off before repeating this feat once again, when strength is restored. Revered elder member of Nnabo, Ukwa, and a retired solider, Chief Bassey Eyo Edem, characterized this ballet as, in his words, “When you go to war, you don't just move directly, when you attack, some of us used crawling, it symbolizes something [is] coming.”27 In other words, the dance expressively parodies a warrior using stealth during an attack or in defense of home. The move, performed under the duress of the skull's spirit, is meant to epitomize a type of masculinity projected through a display of “mystical” warriorhood.
Mkpókpóró (meaning “skull” in Efik)28 is another Nnabo masquerade that dons a human skull on top of its head (Figs. 12–13). The present permutation performed in Calabar is Nnabo's iteration based on the older version of Ukwa, the senior and more long-standing warrior association in Calabar. According to elder members of both societies, Mkpókpóró was also based on Obasinjom. Its long, oversized black gown, often hiding the legs and the feet of the performer, engenders the illusion that the mask floats or glides on land; such a quality is quite similar to the way Obasinjom performs. In the Nnabo context, the black gown is a metaphor for annoyance, and the skull surmounting its head bolsters its terrifying quality and extra-ordinary, mystical character.
Mkpókpóró's function is to assert itself as if irritated, moving this way and that—threating to cover nonmembers with its oversized gown, which in the older days, as the story goes, would engulf non-yielding spectators, who were never seen again. Other duties include song selection and clearing space for Nnabo members and the coveted Ayabom masquerade. In all, Mkpókpóró acts as a type of field marshal. Even before its incorporation into Nnabo, Mkpókpóró was long identified by its huge, flowing black gown, something that has remained consistent with earlier iterations. The skull now found on its head is another story, however.
The older Ukwa version of Mkpókpóró originally did not feature a human skull. Instead, a monkey skull or an artificially sculptured skull made from tuber or root, decorated with vegetal substances and garden eggs, adorned its head (Fig. 14). Since the 1970s, the human skull replaced the earlier carved animal forms.29 Much to the chagrin of elders, young members often reinvent aspects of masquerade arts in societies like Nnabo. Elders often bemoan Mkpókpóró's incorporation into Nnabo and its employment of human skulls with comments like, “These young ones these days are doing rubbish … They are mixing up all these cultural plays to suit their own purposes.”30 The “purposes” to which elders refer are solely rooted in making money with masquerades. Despite such laments, it is these expressive currencies led by young people that ensure the interest of audiences and patrons alike—keeping societies like Nnabo marketable and in demand.
Even despite Mkpókpóró's revised appearance coupled with its longstanding infamous behavior, Ayabom (Fig. 15) is the most iconic and anticipated of all Nnabo masquerades. Ayabom features a rectangular costume, made from a rice sack that conceals every part of the masker's body except his hands and feet. On what could be called its head, seven human skulls rest on a flat, hidden platform. A live cock and hen, occasionally flapping and fluttering, are tied down as if perched atop the skulls. A litany of leaves, yellow palm fronds, grass, and other fauna adorn the top, front, sides, and back of the costume. Members and non-initiates alike responded to my inquiries about Ayabom almost identically: It is a mask that carries seven human skulls, all parts of a human skeleton, and before one can wear it, the performer must cleanse himself by sleeping in the bush for seven days, during which he may not eat food cooked by a woman or engage in sexual relations. The widespread and seemingly rehearsed narrative informs the mask's meaning: simply to attract and astonish.31 Ayabom serves as an overt, sensationalized visualization of ritual power, what someone not all that familiar with West Africa might imagine if asked what a mask from a warrior and herbalist society might look like.32
Lacking a longstanding history like Mkpókpóró, however it is remade today, for a newer mask like Ayabom to be effective as a space-creating device it must separate itself from the flock. Ayabom was thus solely created to visually entice and overwhelm viewers with overt qualities of “ritualism,” fear, and the “mystical.” Elder member and chief Eyo Edem reinforced this very point to me. In his words, “We want[ed] something to dread out people. Ayabom is not a normal display … Why do police, army use gun? It's to make you [the viewer] fear and respect. That's the reason why Ayabom looks the way it does.”33 Beyond its visually striking presence, its significance rests solely in visualizing herbalism and ritual offerings to offset the wickedness of the charged human skulls and other remains attached.
Although an in-depth analysis of herbalism and its ritual applications is beyond the scope of this essay, mention must be given to how Nnabo members pride themselves on their use of warrior-related charms—another aspect taken from Ukwa—to protect them during performance, member-to-member fencing bouts and, in prior decades, violent confrontations between rival masquerade groups.34 In fact, the often mythologized founder of Nnabo, Etim Ibese (also spelled Etim Ebisase) was a revered and powerful herbalist. He is often credited with founding Nnabo, while another well-known herbalist from Akpabuyo, Chief Ekpo Edem, is recognized for the addition of human remains to Ayabom in the 1970s.35 Herbalism and warriorhood, something for which Ukwa is well known, has become overtly visualized in Nnabo's Ayabom.
Most of the elements found on Ayabom have herbalist and other ritualistic connotations. Some examples of herbalism are the charms littered throughout (some visible while most not), manilas, and brooms. The ritual dimensions attached are èkètè (woven sacrificial baskets made from palm fronds, known to be used in Ndem contexts, the Efik tutelary water deity), ékpín (yellowish palm fronds), live fowls, bitter kola, and other offerings used by most masquerade societies. The elements relating to herbalism and ritual sacrifices, coupled with the human skulls and other remains caked with sacrificial offerings, project something that appears to be older than it actually is, all while attempting to blend herbalism, religiosity, and warriorhood into a complicated visual network.
Beyond masquerades, the dress of Nnabo members and the performative behaviors they engage in during outings are indicative of expressive currencies originating from more longstanding sources. Nnabo members holding titles often fashion a type of chieftaincy long shirt and wrapper not unlike those worn in Ekpe/Mgbe contexts (Fenton 2011). However, in the Nnabo context, the white, brightly colored, or patterned cotton long shirt becomes a black polyester garment with matching wrapper, both of which feature red linear accents around the edges. As seen in Figure 16, a white polyester long shirt and wrapper combo with red embroidered trim is also fashionable. White is taken from the style of dress worn by Efik Ndem priestess and the bodyguards of the Efik paramount ruler. While white is meant to connect Nnabo with different realms of spirituality and power, black and red become obvious symbols of annoyance and aggression or blood, respectively. The style of dress is firmly based on the Ekpe/Mgbe chieftaincy model, an expressive currency meant to align this newly created war dance with the highly respected likes of Ekpe/Mgbe.
With Nnabo's interest in branding itself with the image of the human skull, aggressive behavior and raw sensibilities are manifested through hostile performance. While those Nnabo masquerades donning skulls dart aggressively through the streets, members wield short machetes and duel with one another. Such bouts certainly take on a performative quality, but theatrical display is not the focus alone: Members are forcefully trying to best one another, proving their warrior abilities to those gathered. Bouts are intense and taken quite seriously—so much so that bloodshed is indeed common. The use of machetes, a more rugged weapon compared to the long swords typical of Ukwa, is no doubt an influence taken from the older war dance mixed with an even older symbol of warriorhood.
The precolonial executioner society that carried out sanctioned capital punishment known as Nsibidi36 (not to be confused with the esoteric knowledge system bearing the same name) is also a major influence claimed by Nnabo. Nnabo members are fully aware of the past role of the Nsibidi society and often mentioned it in their explanations to me. This is preciously why members often sing the following Efik lyrics during outings:
Nsibidi idam udo Akpan lyereke udo lyereke kop Nnabo (2x)
The Nsibidi play belongs to the second son
The first son doesn't dance it
But the second sons do, hear Nnabo
The song clearly professes that Nsibidi moves with Nnabo. Its also worth mentioning the reference to the second son, which may allude to the fact that just as the second son was groomed as a warrior in days now past, Nnabo, as a younger brother to Ukwa, positions itself as the most aggressive and rightful warrior dance in the modern age.
When asked if there is a connection to the history of headhunting and warrior societies in Cross River, faction president Iso Edim, the Nnabo leader, succinctly said, “There is.” He went on to say, “We had what we called Nsibidi; it will just cut your head when they [officials] say oh, they no want you in town. That's olden days.” He added, “Whenever you play Nnabo, Nsibidi must be there. You will see them there in that Ayabom.”37 His last comment merits attention since it carries the clear connotation that Ayabom's use of human skulls is connected to the association that once executed by way of beheading, thereby linking Nnabo to the longstanding history of warriorhood and warrior societies in the Cross River.
Elders and cultural custodians indicated to me that the human skull was brought into Nnabo shortly after the end of the Biafran civil war.38 Nnabo reinvented its performance with the incorporation of human skulls, an expressive currency that no doubt sent chilling reminders to audiences still coming to terms with the war's devastating toll. Ayabom, with its seven human skulls, and the other Nnabo masqueraders donning skulls provoked a fierce aesthetic that few challenged, ensuring the type of spatial agency that made the society relevant. Branding skulls as the society's new identity tapped into the anxieties of war, but also rekindled ideas stemming back to the precolonial era. Nnabo members were interested in competing and separating themselves from Ukwa by reviving historic practices of warriorhood, promoting a return to precolonial times when the skull was a universal symbol of power and prestige (Nicklin 1983: 67). In the words of President Iso Edim,
Without the skull, Nnabo cannot work fully. You know, that skull is the spirit that moves from that Nnabo. You know we have different masquerades, like Ekpe for example … Nnabo is different from all those things; that is why we use that skull. You know that skull moves the spirit of Nnabo: the warrior.39
Another Nnabo expressive currency of interest is an antelope horn blown as a type of flute. Music remains one of the most important aspects of any masquerade society. Coupled with drums, most revered societies like Ekpe/Mgbe and Akata rely on esoteric or hidden noises to enforce their power. For instance, a hidden, mystical roar and the beating of a gong define Ekpe/Mgbe through the medium of sound. In fact, the gong is often imaged as an emblem of the society. While Nnabo makes use of Akata's voice to “talk anyhow,” the newer war dance does not have its own esoteric noise. Rather, Nnabo makes use of an antelope horn made into a type of flute known in Efik as òbukpòn. This horn has become the musical signifier for Nnabo, an expressive currency that no doubt mirrors Ekpe/Mgbe's use of the gong.
The Nnabo Òbukpòn was inspired by its use during the pageantry surrounding any public arrival of the paramount ruler of the Efiks. The presence of the Obong of Calabar (paramount ruler of the Efiks) is announced by one of his guards, dressed in a white long shirt and matching wrapper (another Nnabo influence already discussed), blowing on a similar antelope flute. The instrument was thus designed to bolster the critical tongue of the society. Clearly, as a recent masquerade society, Nnabo pulls from many sources, creating and innovating upon successful patterns of past expressive currencies as members endeavored to carve out their own performance niche within the competitive, thriving landscape of masquerade patronage.
Ukwa and Nnabo have also influenced even more recent permutations among the youth with the likes of Agaba and Nkòrikò. Although these two recent masquerade societies are not locally referred to as war dances, I group them with Ukwa and Nnabo thanks to the employment of herbalist charms and violence. Agaba spawned from the foreign Igbo play known as Ogelle. In the 1980s, Ogelle became “Calabarized” with the introduction of local drums and rhythms, thereby changing its name to Agaba. What started out as a group based on neighborhood factions is nowadays operated and owned by the infamous area boys.40
Agaba has become even more rugged than Nnabo; both are seen as rivals who have openly fought each other when meeting in the streets. Indeed, in its infancy, Agaba unleashed a decade of violent masquerade performances that often turned into riots when different factions met each other in the streets during the late 1980s. In an effort to suppress these violent confrontations, the Federal Police of Nigeria issued a “shoot on sight” directive in the early 1990s in order to pacify Agaba and clean up the city to pave the way for the tourism industry. Although the police's action has greatly reduced the youth society, Agaba performers still aggressively take to the streets with machetes to voice their marginalized place in urban Calabar (Fig. 17).
Calabar Agaba youths (usually ranging between 10–40 years of age)41 use and perform Annang and Ibibio-styled Ekpo masks, unlike Akwa Ibom factions, who employ Igbo inspired styles.42 Ekpo is renowned in southeastern Nigeria as an aggressive and violent secret society based in Akwa Ibom.43 Ekpo influences are clearly illustrated through the primary Calabar Agaba mask known as Iso Agaba and Akaniyo (Fig. 18). For example, the black Akaniyo of the ID Boys is clearly derived from the vertically stacked, multi-Janus faces of the Eka Ekpo (mother of Ekpo) mask.44 The wood chosen for Akaniyo are carved from nkubia, a species of tree associated with Ndem, the all-powerful Efik tutelary deity. Not only are there masks based on local and foreign concepts of power and spirituality, Agaba performances are transgressive acts that challenge both longstanding and federal forms of government.
When Calabar Agaba takes to the streets in the name of protest their collective voice is well heard and sometimes felt. Some of the best evidence is found in the songs they sing, revealing the difficult position in which they find themselves, caught between political corruption and economic survival, as seen in this Nigerian pidgin song:
Government wey ting! I dey do—you—o!
Government wey ting
I dey do you wey you no get seat
You give me machete and gun—eee!
To kill gang, we don give you seat—o!
And you start fighting against us—eeee!
Government you don give me mess—oooo! (2x)45
Government, what are you thinking? I work for you
Government, what are you thinking?
I was with you before you became someone
You gave me a machete and a gun
To kill, we put you in your office
Now, you wage war against us?
Government, you have created a problem for me!
Calabar Agaba songs expose the complicated predicament entangling these young people within a problematic web, where the yearning for economic sustainability entraps them in the arena of dirty politics. Politicians thus use the youths for political gain without financially settling them. The songs and their poignant lyrics provide them an important voice in an otherwise voiceless situation. Such a strategy is clearly an expressive currency derived from the auditory tendencies of Akata and Nnabo. However, this alone is not enough.
When Agaba takes to the streets, the seductive sounds of their beating gongs attract onlookers. As Agaba performs, they sing songs of protest, voicing their plights, while also committing an audacious, unthinking act of unmasking, breaking a major taboo in the world of masking! Agaba maskers knowingly transgress the secrecy and illusionistic elements that define masking by removing their masks during performance (Fig. 19). The act challenges the authority of the older, more longstanding institutions like Ekpe. The act can be interpreted as self-exposure: They, as strong men, are the power and not the mask, which in a conceptual manner can be likened to the aggressive power associated with earlier warrior society's presentation of severed heads and skulls as ultimate symbols of physical prowess, all while revealing, in the words of a retired member, that “Agaba boys have [the] mind to do anything.”46
Agaba's expressive currency of unmasking has effectively raised the bar from Nnabo's use of the human skull. Dressed in jeans and tee-shirts with graphics representing urban and “thug life” personas, Agaba voices their plights while boldly unmasking for all to see. Coupled with a penchant for violence and conscious mixing of the foreign with the local employed by Calabar Agaba, these acts are calculated expressive currencies granting them spatial agency, contesting and confronting their postcolonial predicament and economic disenfranchisement.
Despite Agaba's forceful and challenging demeanor, most members are outspoken about identifying themselves as a cultural group as opposed to a gang. In fact, as I have shown elsewhere (Fenton 2016), Agaba factions endeavor to procure commissions to perform at vigil night ceremonies, community festivals, and similar venues. They even invent new types of masquerades beyond the Akaniyo, advertising their light-hearted side solely for entertainment and the purpose of patronage. Despite widespread praise for their gong beatings and rhythms, those commissioning Agaba often think twice, and for good reason. Members therefore developed a completely different masquerade known as Nkòrikò (meaning “periwinkle with a soft shell” in Efik) in the early 2000s.
Nkòrikò masking employs an almost identical yet slightly slower beat and rhythm than Agaba. The mask is based on the tiered Nnabo raffia headdress mixed with Tinkòrikò, a masquerade play for preadolescent youths (Fig. 20). Not unlike Agaba, Nkòrikò maskers remove their masks or may choose to hang them on the side of their headdress. Nkòrikò was created as a guise after police banned Agaba, and even to this day, some members conceal weapons in the masquerade costumes. Another reason, and perhaps the most important for this study, is that Nkòrikò was founded when members realized the widespread admiration Agaba music and rhythms received. Providing a fresh, witty, and eclectic remixing of the tainted Agaba, members strategically created Nkòrikò to capitalize on their growing demand.47
Returning to the commissioned performance of Ukwa and Okpon-Ibuot where we started, I have shown that the male/female dance duo was introduced as a way to rebrand a waning warrior society at the turn of the twentieth century. I conceptualize such innovations as expressive currencies, which I extend to explaining the transformation of the skin-covered mask genre, which artists softened from its harsher roots, ultimately leading to its contemporary vitality with the applications of modern paints. On the other hand, the likes of Nnabo and Agaba, who returned to the use of skulls or unabashedly unmask for all to see, rekindles ideas that offer a glimpse of precolonial warriorhood reinterpreted through a contemporary lens. Such artistic transactions suggest a historical dialogue driven by economic incentive where the past is reinterpreted through the present.
The strategic and calculated expressive currencies developed by warrior-inspired societies advertise distinction and promote historical awareness for would-be patrons in the growing market of masquerade culture within the city. Understanding such changes as expressive currencies underscores the crucial role economics play in the creative decisions that inform the artistic permutation of Calabar warrior-related associations. For a masquerade to be sought after and commercially relevant, its members, as most said to me, must “bring something new.” At different times Ukwa, Nnabo, Agaba, and even more recent iterations remade themselves through an understanding of the past. And this is where expressive transactions among masquerade arts are especially crucial: Planning committees for festivals and other like celebrations spend hours debating and mulling over which masquerades to commission that will best entice folks to attend and enhance the currency of the event.48
Art and culture do not just change for sake of change; change is driven by individuals with purpose in mind, and in the context of Calabar, artistic alteration in masquerade is indicative of an interest in keeping an association commercially buoyant. Artistic change is not produced in a vacuum, nor is it a byproduct of history; artistic expression is a type of currency that, in the context of Calabar warrior societies, actively incorporated the past to add value to the present. In doing so, an interesting historical dialogue emerges: Modern decorative strategies such as paint now used in the skin-covered mask genre is giving way to warrior-inspired groups, who instead prefer a return to the past—one where skulls and trophy heads are once again the ideal of male aggression, even though the latter is now seen through one's own skin—their face.
Fieldwork for this essay was conducted in Calabar and Cross River State, Nigeria, between 2008–2016 as a Foreign Language Area Studies fellow (2008 and 2009) and as a Fulbright-Hays Scholar (2009–2010). My previous institution, Kendall College of Art and Design, Ferris State University, funded summer travel in 2014. My present institution, Miami University (Ohio), through the Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship in the form of a Summer Research Award, funded a trip in 2016.
The àkàsì is a longstanding symbol of femininity and corpulence adding to the girth of the masker's waist. It is used by other female orientated performances throughout the Cross River region. The cane hoop is used most notably by female Abang performers.
The description I opened this essay with was based on a complete Ukwa performance I documented in Akpabuyo for the remembrance of His Royal Highness Etinyin, Antigha Bassey Etim Cobhman I (1932–2008), clan head of Ikang and Etinyin Akamba of Bakassi and Akpabuyo. Three masquerade groups were commissioned to perform, one of which was the renowned Atakpa Okutama, an Efik and Efut Calabar Ukwa faction based in Calabar, whose name can be translated as “a Calabar branch when you see you love to see them.” Chief Awa Ekang Awa offered this Efik-to-English translation to me during an interview on May 29, 2010.
This paper is also influenced by Zoë Strother's work among the Pende in central Africa, where she has demonstrated the ways in which masquerades have been invented and reinvented in response to popular culture (1995). Sidney Kasfir (this issue) discusses instances in the past where warrior masquerades danced with skulls and jawbones that were actual war trophies. This may suggest a gray area or transition between warrior dance and masquerade. However, while the template of reinvention in masquerade is certainly not new, I would like it to make clear that my argument hinges on artistic remixing in terms of warrior-related masquerades that have long strategized expressive ways to market themselves and remain relevant in the past as well as in a recent, post-1980s sense, all while having history in mind too.
Ejagham (formally known as the Ekoi), Efik, Ibibio, Yakurr, Bokyi, Anyang, Banyang, and Widekum peoples have received the most attention in colonial and contemporary written and scholarly accounts.
G.I. Jones established broad styles within geographical units moving away from individual ethnic styles. Jones's geographical method successfully organized the art of eastern Nigeria (as he labeled it) according to four major styles: the Lower Niger, the Delta, Anang (Ibibio), and Cross River (Jones 1984: 125–36). Further, he identified local styles and subdivisions within the four major stylistic areas (Jones 1984: ch. 10–12). The Cross River style grouping was broadly discussed and focused mainly on skin-covered masks (Jones 1984: 191–97). Others accepted Jones's geographical model and developed it less broadly by narrowing down styles of the skin-covered mask in three basic areas. This approach divided the region's skin-covered masks into the stylistic groupings of lower, middle and upper Cross River (Wittmer and Arnett 1978: 55–85; Nicklin 1979: 59, 2000; Blier 1980: 5–8, Campbell 1981: 5).
It is well known in the region today that status and physical prowess was achieved when a warrior provided proof of his abilities in warfare when presenting severed trophy heads of enemies upon return to the village from battle in precolonial hinterland warrior associations.
Charles Partridge, a colonial commissioner during the time of Talbot, wrote on the importance of obtaining a trophy head: “For he [a Cross River native] believes that, by killing a man and keeping his skull (the seat of wisdom), he acquires the enviable qualities of the deceased—bravery, cunning, astuteness in trade, etc. …” (1905: 231).
The power associated with severing a head and the importance of trophy skulls in Calabar was still emphasized by missionaries, however. For example, in a conflict between Calabar and Okoyong, missionary Hugh Goldie stated that, to prohibit Calabar warriors from attaining heads of slain Okoyong enemies, “their women followed the combatants, and with a lasso secured the dead or wounded and drew them off” (1890: 228).
Nicklin and Salmons (1988: 129) cite Kenneth Murray, Nigeria's first Surveyor of Antiquities, for this date range.
For more on female “maiden” skin-covered heads, see Fenton 2013.
Shortages of skin used to cover skin heads were documented as well. G.I. Jones stated, “it was certainly quicker and cheaper to carve a head and varnish it than to carve one and then have to wait to find a suitable skin” (1984: 197).
Kasfir (1992) raised important issues surrounding authenticity and its limits on the “canon” of African art history.
While skin heads are not still in use in Nigeria, evidence suggests that, although rare, skin-covered masks may still be in use among Cameroon Cross River cultures; see Koloss 2008.
Interviews with local historian and newspaper columnist, Chief Ita Bassey, April 6, 2010 and Nnabo and Ukwa elder and mask carver, Chief Bassey Eyo Edem, January 7, 2010.
Interview with Qua-Ejagham elder, Okoro Edem Ntoe, March 9, 2010.
Interview with Efik elder, Chief Ita Bassey, April 6, 2010.
Interviews with Qua-Ejagham elder chief Esinjo Francis E. Iso, March 30, 2010, and Ntufam Hayford S. Edet, April 30, 2010.
It is also worth mentioning that Nnabo is not mentioned anywhere in the dissertation by folklorist Donald C. Simmons, who conducted ethnographic work among the Eifk in Creek Town and Duke Town from April, 1952, to May, 1953. Although Simmons was primarily interested in Efik folktales, he included in-depth discussions on the topics of Efik warfare, secret societies, and other cultural associations (Simmons 1958).
Interviews with Calabar-based cultural custodians/Nnabo members Efik chief Ita Bassey and Qua Entufam Hayford S. Edet, May 24, 2010; Efik chief Awa Ekang Awa, May 29, 2010; Qua faction president Iso Edim, January 6, 2010; Efik chief Bassey Eyo Edem, January 7, 2010 (although he said Nnabo was founded in the 1940s); Asuquo Edet Okon, August 17, 2010 (he stated that Nnabo was primarily influenced from the Ejagham masquerade known as Abiabosim); Akpabuyo/Bakassi-based cultural custodian and Nnabo member chief Eyo Cobham Ewa, August 14, 2016.
For more discussion and published images of Obasinjom (also spelled Basinjom) found in hinterland Nigeria see Nicklin 1977: 24–26, 29). For iterations found in West Cameroon see Thompson 1974: 209–17; Koloss 2008: 147–87; Röschenthaler 2011: 194–202). While I am fully aware Obasinjom and njom are different, the former (the mask) and the latter (the word for medicine) are both described as essentially medicines. For a published discussion on the connection between the Obasinjom mask and njom (medicine), see Koloss 1984, 2008: 181; Röschenthaler 2004.
Interview with elder Nnabo and Ukwa member, chief Awa Ekang Awa, May 29, 2010.
In fact, Nnabo members can only fully come to terms with this voice after they have been completely initiated into Akata. Akata also makes use of a mask to announce its annual arrival in August. The mask is known as Abasi Udo Ekoi. After the arrival of the mask, Akata will usually only perform during the night thereafter. Members will move throughout their area, openly criticizing government and revealing the secrets and wrongdoings of individuals throughout the community. Akata is the Efik and Efut version, while among the Qua it is known as Angbo. Angbo does not make use of a mask; it only performs at night from the shelter of the Mgbe lodge.
I was told skulls belonged to either powerful past members or those who did not have enough money to pay for membership; in such cases inductees make an oath during initiation to use their skull upon their death. According to a Qua faction president Iso Edim, “That is the head of the members—all the head[s] of the members will be there. Like me today if I die, my head will be there.” Interviews with Iso Edim, January 6, 2010, Qua chief Dennis Oqua, April 14, 2010, and chief Bassey Eyo Edem, April 22, 2010.
Interview with Edem Nyong Etim, longtime member of various masquerade societies such as Nnabo, Ukwa, Ekpe, Obon, and Aktata, November 24, 2009.
I was unable to discern if those moments were staged, simply planned to heighten the allure for the gathered audience or due to physical or spiritual exhaustion. Although, I must say, I only witnessed this once before, during the performance commissioned by the age grade at Nkonib (Ikot Ansa) in November 2009. When this does occur, it is not taken lightly since it damages the reputation and toughness of the performer.
Interview with elder Nnabo member and head of Ukwa faction, chief Bassey Eyo Edem, January 7, 2010.
Okomnjom is locally interpreted as Mkpókpóró in Ekin, the Qua-Ejagham language. Many say the Efik Mkpókpóró is also inspired by the Qua Okomnjom. I use the Efik name in this discussion since it seems to be the most used and recognized name in Calabar today. Efik, Qua and Efut members alike refer to it as Mkpókpóró. Hence my use of it here.
Human skulls are most commonly used on Mkpókpóró nowadays, I have documented animal skulls still used, however to a much less extent. In these rare cases, it was always performing in the context of Ukwa, not Nnabo.
Interview with secretary of all Qua-Ejagham clans, cultural custodian, currently active in Calabar, Ntufam Hayford S. Edet, November 25, 2009.
Ayabom's ability to astonish viewers is not unlike Kongo nkondi and nkisi from central Africa (MacGaffey 1993).
While there are herbalist and religious connections to Nnabo and Ayabom for some members, especially through ritual acts of pouring libation to the spirits residing in the human skulls, I in no way mean to marginalize the spiritual dimension here. As I have stressed elsewhere (Fenton 2016: 176), the religious issue is complicated and its dogma is not universally embraced by all members, but interpreted individually. An in-depth study examining the religiosity of herbalism in the Cross River, as well as in broader African, is greatly needed.
Interview with chief Bassey Eyo Edem, January 7, 2010.
As usual with trying to track down “origins,” I was told and gathered some conflicting narratives concerning the history of Ayabom, its sources, and its initial architect. Some I interviewed informed me that Ayabom was its own Ejagham play and was brought into Nnabo during its founding in the 1950s. However, the early version of Ayabom was not adorned with human remains. Etim Ibese or Ebisase is often credited for bringing this early version of Ayabom into Nnabo, thus founding the society in the mid 1950s.
Most who have written on cultural associations in the Cross River mention the executioner society known as Nsibidi; however, while frequently referred to, it remains greatly under-studied. Most have commented on it when discussing the language system with the same name (Thompson 1978: 30, 1983: 227–28; Offiong 1989: 54; Anwana 2009: 124). Writing in the early 1900s, and important for analyzing Nnabo's artistic trajectories, Talbot recorded that in the older days officials of the Nsibidi club wore long black robes over their heads during executions (1912: 30).
Interview with Iso Edim, president of the Nnabo faction Nka Anim Inyang of the Quas at Ediba, January 6, 2010.
Interviews with Calabar-based cultural custodians and Nnabo members chief Ita Bassey and Entufam Hayford S. Edet, May 24, 2010, chief Awa Ekang Awa, May 29, 2010, and chief Bassey Eyo Edem, January 7 and February 1, 2010. Interviews with Akpabuyo-based cultural custodian and Nnabo member chief Ene Bassey Etim, August 14, 2016,
Interview with Iso Edim, president of the Nnabo faction Nka Anim Inyang of the Quas at Ediba, January 6, 2010.
Today, there are seven factions of Agaba, six in Calabar South: Nsidung (Henshaw Town), Bay Side (Duke Town), ID Boys (Idang area), Etat Udari, Jebs, Nugun Ekpo, and Ikot Ekpo (Mount Zion area)and one operating in Calabar Municipality, Ikot Ekpo (Mount Zion area). Over the last twenty years, the ID Boys, Bay Side, and Nsidung remain the most active and influential.
In Nigerian contexts the category of “youth” spans from teenage years well into one's thirties. Age forty typically means one is in their adult years. There is of course nuance to this general rule of thumb.
The Agaba mask that historian David Pratten documented in Akwa Ibom closely resembles Igbo spirit maiden masks (2008: 55, 57). For more on Igbo spirit maiden masks, see Cole and Aniakor (1984). Pratten further suggested only one Agaba mask existed and that mask is hired from Port Harcourt (2008: 55). This is quite different from Calabar Agaba factions, who employ their own Ekpo styled masks, which often led to competition and street fighting over ownership.
For an image of Eka or mother of Ekpo, see Jones 1984: 177.
The song is in Nigerian pidgen, a trade and creole-like language that is a combination of many indigenous languages fused with English and Portuguese.
Interview with retired Nsidung member, Nsa Eyo Nsa, January 27, 2010.
A sought-after branch of Nkòrikò is Abonima, which means “a bullet that people love.”
I documented such discussions and debates (especially their budgets) at weekly meetings during the Central Planning Committee (CPC) assemblies for the planning of the seventh anniversary coronation of Ndidem (Dr.) Thomas I.I. Oqua III, March 2010.