African designs, £9.99
Height: 29.200 cm
Gift of Dr Lewelyn Wynne Davies
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Carved wooden headdress decorated with seeds
Afo, 20th century AD
From northern Nigeria
This dance crest is made of backened wood with the red seeds Abrus precatorius inlaid in beeswax. It represents, in stylized form, a chameleon balanced on a cockscomb.
In museums, African masks and headdresses are displayed as objects, and considered as examples of African aesthetics and creativity. Although written about in exhibition text and books, it remains difficult for people to appreciate how masks are worn and used in their various ceremonies, for the mask is only one element, along with the costume, music and dance, of the masquerader's performance.
When carving a headdress or mask, the carver does not attempt to recreate the features of an individual, but to reproduce an idea of the qualities or character of the mask.
This enables the addition of other features, often animals, which are not actual representations, but stylized forms intended to convey the spirit of the animal in relation to the spirit of the mask.
Certain groups request selected masks familiar to them for particular occasions, thus certain forms have been passed on from generation to generation. Although new masks are regarded as individual carvings they share some similarities with older masks, which helps retain the style of the masquerade.
The carver's requirement to work to particular aesthetic conventions does allow for creative innovation. Many changes have occurred in African societies and the carver is able to respond to change while retaining a continuity of tradition.
H.M. Cole (ed.), I am not myself: the art of ma, Los Angeles monograph series, no. 26 (Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1985)
W.B. Fagg, Nigerian images (London, Lund Humphries, 1990)