Carved Wooden Abstract Buffalo Headdress
Mama People, Benue River, Nigeria
early 20th century
height: 15cm, width: 22.5cm,
This head crest from the Mama people, also known as the Kantana, who reside in the Benue River Valley in northern Nigeria, is to be worn atop a dancer’s head has been extremely well-carved as a minimal abstract representation of buffalo.
It represents the bush spirit of such a buffalo and its aggressive power. It is carved in light wood and has much surface encrustation with red granulated pigments which are believed to enhance the potency of the head crest.
The stylised buffalo has been carved with a gaping mouth. Its sculpted horns curve backwards in a beautiful ad naturalistic way – almost giving the impression of a stingray swimming in the sea. The circular base has two holes, which allow a string to go through to fasten the head crest on top of the head of its wearer.
Head crests are important objects in harvest celebrations and other seasonal rituals. They were commissioned by the Mangam, a male association. They were worn by energetic dancers in dances designed to attract prosperity. The dancers would wear the head crests atop their heads, and their bodies would be enveloped in thick costumes of grasses. The dancers were believed to channel the power of the bush spirits into human service.
Size distinguishes the functions and uses of these head crests. This head crest is considered a ‘small’ one. ‘Small’ head crests are said to be used only in the initiation ceremonies of young Mangam members. ‘Big’ head crests are scarcer than the ‘small’ examples and were used only in the more revered ceremonies of older Mangam members. ‘Big’ crests tend to represent the waterbuck, identifiable by its two slim and straight horns.
The head crest here shows significant signs of use, including in the surface of the base. It is complete, in very good condition, and highly sculptural. It is unusually well carved.
Blier, S. P., Art of the Senses: African Masterpieces from the Teel Collection, MFA Publications, 2004.
African Forms, Skira editore, 2000.
Lebas, A. (ed.),
Arts of Nigeria in French Private Collections, 5 Continents, 2012.
Robbins, W. M. and Nooter, N. I.,
African Art in American Collections, Smithsonian Institution, 1989.
Roberts, A. F.,
Animals in African Art: From the Familiar to the Marvelous, Prestel & The Museum for African Art, 1995.Provenance:
acquired from the estate of Dr Peter Sharratt (d. 2014). Sharratt was a linguist and lecturer in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh who published on Renaissance French sculpture. In his private life, he was an avid collector of tribal art, building up his collection over fifty years. During that time, he bought from UK dealers, collectors and auction houses.
Inventory no.: 3110
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