This unusual helmet mask would have been worn on the top of the head of a ritual dance performer. It is decorated in white, black and red ochre and is notable for its bulging ‘bug’ eyes, and the row of white teeth, each of which is clearly defined. It also has protruding red lips, prominent ears, and a zig-zag band around the top of the head to denote a hairline. Small holes over the head might have held tufts of hair. A stick pokes from the very top of the head.
The lower rim of the mask is perforated with holes to which textile would have been attached which would have covered the head and face of the wearer.
The teeth with a noticeable ‘V’-shaped gap in the middle are precisely replicated in ibeji twin figures from the Ajasse Ipo region in the Igbomina-Yoruba land of Kwara State (see examples in Polo, 2008). The ibeji from this region also are carved with prominent ears that have a shape similar to those on this helmet mask. These characteristics seem to allow an attribution for the mask to the Ajasse Ipo region.
The form seems to have longevity: bronze heads with similar bulging eyes from the Ijebu region date back to 16th century Benin.
Also, lot 112 of Christie’s London, ‘African Art from the Collection of the Late Josef Muller of Solothurn, Switzerland’, June 13, 1978 comprised a possibly related mask but with similar bulging eyes. The lot was described as being made for the Egungun masquerade by the carver Oniyide Adugbologe of Abeokuta (circa 1875-1940), with the comment that the bulging eyes might be a reference to a pathological case of glaucoma.
The example here has an age related split to one side of the head, but this is typical and stable.
Overall, it is an unusual piece with noticeable age.
Christie’s London, ‘African Art from the Collection of the Late Josef Muller of Solothurn, Switzerland’, June 13, 1978.
Drewell H.J. & J. Pemberton, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, Museum for African Art, 1989.
Polo, F., Encyclopedia of the Ibeji, Ibeji Art, 2008.