History behind the mask
This Ghanaian wooden mask is a tribute to the famous ivory mask from Benin. The hanging mask was probably made in the early 16th century for the king or ObaEsigie, the king of the Edo peoples, to honour his mother Idia. The Oba may have worn it during rituals to commemorate his mother, although such pendants are worn today during annual ceremonies for spiritual renewal and purification.
The Benin ivory mask became popular in 1977 during the Festival of African Culture and is therefore called the FESTAC mask.
The mask is a portrait, depicting its subject with softly modeled features, bearing inlaid metal and carved scarification marks on the forehead, and wearing bands of coral beads below the chin.
Stylised mudfish and the bearded faces of Portuguese are carved into the openwork tiara and collar. Since mudfish live both on land and in water, they represent the dual nature of the king as both man and god. The Portuguese, who came from across the seas, were seen as inhabitants of the spirit realm, bringing wealth and power to the Oba.
During the British conquest of the capital of the Kingdom of Benin in 1897, soldiers looted the palace. The brutal clearance forever decoupled the altars dedicated to each Oba from the period 1300 to the conquest of Benin and the specific works created to commemorate them. In addition to dealers and private collectors, the most important customers at this time were the newly founded ethnographic museums in the West.
The dissemination of Beninese works had a lasting influence on black intellectuals’ awareness of their extraordinary aesthetic power, beauty and complexity. In the USA, these intellectuals included in particular W.E.B. Dubois, Alain Locke and artists of the Harlem Renaissance.