Ibibio sculpture, The Horniman Museum                                                           Nic Carlyle

I chose an item from a group that I had no prior knowledge of, yet, when read up upon, gave me access to mention a key concept common to many West African witchcraft discourses. But I was relieved that there was an object in the first place, and secondly, that it was on display, as promised in the online catalogue record, when we arrived.  Anyway, the piece came from the Ibibio peoples, of southern eastern, coastal Nigeria, who currently number about 5 million people, and have previously been famed for their wood carvings.  

Prior to the 20th century, the Ibibio, particularly the Anaang people, produced  at least two types of carving for different cultic purposes: masks for secret societies, and ancestor figures. The latter of the two, the ekpu figures, represented recently departed ancestors. Various descriptions state that they were set up in ritually significant places, usually with a palm-leaf canopy overhead, on a special clay platform base.  However, once in place, they were to remain untouched until they had rotted away.  this is in constrast to many West African traditions, whereby the carvings and statutes are washed, repaired and cherished at least once a year.  

The ekpu are ancestor figures, and the better carvings represent identifiable elders. The body, as in the trunk, is emphasised. Indeed, other ekpu are noted for their emphasis of the stomach, and depict it in a stylised enormous onion form.  Really, they are depicting not so much the physical abdomen as the symbolic 'belly', an outward form of a great mysterious cavity and capacity.  For magic lives in such a place, and the 'Big Man' holds many secrets within. By extension, even the Big Man cannot hope to emulate the biggest belly of them all - the womb. And thus by the logic of witchcraft discourse, women are identified as inately susceptible to being witches and being the dwelling place of magic.  And so we could have gone on...

One curious thing of note.  When I looked at the object in the online catalogue, the description said 'mutilated' and could not immediately see why.  I thought the arms might have been damaged, as they were so curiously truncated.  I was wrong. When I saw the actual item in situ, I saw how wrong I had been. Looking around the African Worlds gallery, I had this mental image of a Victorian curator besides a small box of 'mutilations'...  Well, it is now part of the object's story, alas.



(Copyright 2011, OUAMEAS. All rights reserved.)
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Ekpu (Copyright 2011, Nic Carlyle. All rights reserved.)