Five Things one should know about the Ijebu (Jebu/Geebu)

1. Prosperous Times
During the 16th century, the Ijebu kingdom (1500-1750) dominated Nigeria’s coastal region. Portuguese copper was traded and the Ijebu cast brass objects that demonstrated an influence derived from the Benin kingdom. However their bracelets, bells, and office staffs were usually decorated with half human/half-animal figures with globular eyes and often curved forehead scarifications.[1]

2. Tragic History
During the nineteenth century the Ijebu controlled the trading lanes between Lagos and Ibadan. They refused to cede control to the British, and in 1892 the British launched attacks, and incursions on Ijebuland, using Maxim guns, and burning villages.
It is telling that solider-adventurer Frederick Lugard, in his defense against charges of excessive death rates in Uganda from his own use of the gun, stated: “On the West Coast, in the ‘Jebu’ war, undertaken by Government, I have been told ‘several thousands’ were mowed down by the Maxim.”[2]

3. Igodo Headdress
Ijebu Yoruba living along the coast celebrate water spirits with an elaborate program of masquerades called Agbo. They adapted Agbo from the Ijo of the Niger Delta, who are famous for their Ekine masquerades in honor of the ‘water people’, (owu), spirits that “own “ portions of creeks, controlling their water level, currents, waves, and the depth of fish shoals. One distinctive headdress is known as the Igodo. The shape of Igodo masks plays on the form of a paddle and on that of a boat’s prow, evoking the closeness between water-oriented people and spirits of the deep. Two creatures used from Ijo mythology are the python, (the mythic progenitor of all water spirits), and the fishing eagle (ogolo), which carries messages from the water spirits to humans.[3]

Igodo Headdress

Igodo Headdress

4. Ijebu (adjective)
The Ijebu people are commonly assumed to be stingy people. Ijebus are very rich and successful, more so than most other Yoruba tribes, but along with this they are also popularily deemed extremely miserly with their wealth. Hence ‘Ijebu’ is a popular slang used to refer to any one miserly with money or other resource.[4]

5. Perils of Ijebu Kingship
Prior to British rule, the Ijebu tribe of the Yoruba race was divided into two branches, known respectively as the Ijebu Ode and the Ijebu Remon. The Ode branch of the tribe is ruled by a chief who bears the title of Awujale and is surrounded by a great deal of mystery. The Remon branch of the Ijebu tribe is governed by a chief, who ranks below the Awujale. This subordinate chief used to be killed with ceremony after a rule of three years,[5] but Ulli Beier (cited by Willett) notes that, according to the existing tradition in Ijebu, the kings were put to death after a reign of only seven years.[6]

[1] The Tribal Arts of Africa; Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste p 100
[3] African Art; Schmalenbach, Werner p 147
[6] Art of Africa; Kerchache, J. et al, p 535

Collecting African Art

[Ben Matros has been collecting African Tribal art from the 1950s and
has given permission to share the following. His website is]

Collecting rare African artifacts can be fulfilling but challenging.
True collecting requires and an eye for quality and scarcity, coupled with an honest dealer or seller. Often mass-produced airport-art is sold as an authentic, collectible-quality piece. Some unscrupulous dealers mix this tourist-art in with their finer pieces. The key is knowing your dealer.

Matros sitting on fetish mound in 1975 with Village Chief in Town of Abomey, Dahomey.

Matros sitting on fetish mound in 1975 with Village Chief in Town of Abomey, Dahomey.

African masks, statues, and other objects have an inherent meaning for the culture, the work, and the intended individual. Original pieces were related to religious practices and every day life. They were not made for museums or collectors.
Not all pieces were used often, and not all worn pieces are old. The tribes in some African countries, such as the Dogon in Mali, in many cases use pieces once and then they are discarded.

1. Look at the piece. See if it’s well carved, is the patina correct? Worn in the right places? Compare it with similar pieces from Museums.
2. Consider the ethnic provenance or origin. Even if of the same quality, the art of different tribes can have huge price differences. Where did it come from? Who owned it before the dealer?
3. Pedigree: A piece from a collector from the thirties has a higher value than a similar piece recently acquired in the West. Even some very banal pieces from famous artists have reached very high prices. When the piece is published in a book or catalogue it is worth more.
4. Conservation: Too much restoration can decrease the value.
5. Rareness: How individual is the piece?
6. Size does not matter. Rarity and quality are the keys.
7. Auction result prices can yield a higher price for a particular piece. It does not mean that the piece is better.
8. The seller. The prestige of the dealer will sometimes boost the price. Large gallery or individual sale, it’s the quality and scarcity of the piece that matters.

Clouds, Silver Linings, and the Kongoli.

One of the benefits of Collecting Tribal African Art is simply gaining exposure to the diversity of cultural knowledge associated with the tribes, and masks.

The day did not begin well. Today (01/12/14) marked the second consecutive auction where I missed placing a bid on a mask that seemed interesting. It was advertised as a Kongoli from the Mende culture in Sierra Leone – I had never come across this type of mask (or so I thought), but accessing the auction mere minutes after the mask was sold seemed unbelievably unlucky. In an auction in December I missed an Igala mask (gutting) because I fell asleep after shoveling snow. So, on the bright side I decided to read up on the Kongoli mask, and I’m sure glad I did. Apart from being a funny mask, from a tribe with a great masking tradition, I realized I actually had one in my collection. It had been mis-categorized as belonging to the Bamum tribe, from the Cameroon.

Kongoli (previously attributed to Bamum)

Kongoli (previously attributed to Bamum)

Cue the silver lining. It absolutely turned my day around, but there’s another side to this that blew me away. Modern society is becoming increasingly paralyzed by political correctness. The Kongoli is in truth and fact “the village clown”, and as the following video demonstrates sometimes entertainment is simply entertaining.

The short video documentary below, by Bill Hart (University of Ulster), examines the role of the Kongoli/Gongoli mask in Sierra Leone culture. The first 22 secs are classic

Gongoli Description (from the Yale University Art Gallery eCatalogue)

Kongoli (Gongoli) Mask [E1]

Kongoli (Gongoli) Mask [E1]

“Ugly! This is the reaction that the Mende audience has when seeing this mask in performance. The uglier, the better. The function of the Gongoli performance is to show the worst side of human nature: deformed, disheveled, chaotic, undisciplined, deceptive, and antisocial. The mask is worn with a hideous costume of dead leaves and rags. The movements of the performer are disjointed, erratic, awkward?and amusing. Gongoli masks are usually owned by private individuals and may appear at any celebration.”

[E1] Photo Credit to Yale University Art Gallery eCatalogue

Civil Rights Leaders of the 21st Century

During the past two weeks, members of the African American community observed the passing of Steve Biko[1] (died 10/12/77),

and the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham Four[2] (10/15/63).                                                   Image

The Pan African, Black Diaspora, or African American communities don’t need another pantheon of demi-gods, a new religious order, or a hierarchy of saints. What is needed however is a shared cultural understanding, a social construct or vehicle which conveys the values of our ancestors in a manner which is convenient, flexible, effective, and neither farcical, comical, nor inclusive.


When and where does the Black community celebrate the lives of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Fred Hampton, Steve Biko, Frederick Douglass, et al, in a manner that is collectively, and uniquely appreciative?


How can our communities gravitate to celebrating the lives of those who sacrificed, and made tremendous commitments to the cause of freedom, and equality for black peoples when we are simultaneously engaged in supporting and propagating cultural norms which are part and parcel of the social infrastructure and status quo that keep us mired in the classification of “second class citizenship”?


Why should there be a centralized association to determine that MLK Jr. falls short of sainthood, or that Ghandi qualifies. Why should this arrangement preclude a family honoring the life of individuals who have set examples and who have lived lives which exemplify the best values which we can emulate as a society; a society in which the character and mettle of a man is not judged by the color of his skin, he is not hated because of the color of his skin, nor is he despised simply because of his social status.


Why can’t Black families in the Caribbean celebrate the lives of Dr. Eric Williams, Kwame Ture, and Bob Marley, in conjunction with those of MLK Jr., and Nelson Mandela? Have we become so conditioned to the social biscuits of acceptance that norms without established dogma are viewed as wrong, and unnecessary? At the end of the day we are responsible for the value systems we develop within our families, and the ‘truth’ in action that reinforces those systems.


The Civil Rights Leaders of the 21st century are the Parents who still understand the meaning of Segregation/Apartheid, and have bridged the gap to the euphemisms of  Diversity, and Minority representation. The time has come for the centralization of the ideals of the movement to be decentralized, and fully represented within the family structure.  Before we can grasp the benefits of the dream, it seems necessary that we like MLK Jr., are required to be vigilant, and engaged in a similar effort to ‘share’ the dream.

Knowledge and the “All-Inclusive” Ivory Tower

On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic I walked with one brief kernel of research, (which although incorrect did influence my enjoyment to a certain degree). Sadly(?) I mistakenly ranked the DR as one of the highest ranking Caribbean countries in terms of GDP per capita (a proxy for the general standard of living).

World Bank (2005–2012)









Intl. $







 United States












 Bahamas, The




Trinidad and Tobago




 Saudi Arabia




 Antigua and Barbuda








 Saint Kitts and Nevis
















 Costa Rica












 South Africa




 Saint Lucia




 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines








 Dominican Republic
































 Congo, Dem. Rep.



The problem is that I took every opportunity to justify what I believed to be accurate. I discounted the lack of agricultural development, absence of factories, the low wages, etc believing that the happy, smiling faces were a reflection of the prosperity of the nation. In lockstep with my thinking the high-end mall and the nearby golf course simply reinforced my original assumptions. The truth is that the all-inclusive Caribbean resort is to a large extent the quintessential ivory tower.

The numbers are all relative. Haiti is clearly less prosperous than Jamaica, and comparatively destitute when compared to the United States, but many African countries make living in Haiti look like winning the lotto. The apparant disconnect stemmed from the fact that the Dominican Republic has the second largest economy in the Caribbean – one only need multiply the population by the per capita GDP, (say 10million by the per capita GDP (+$10.2k), to get a GDP in excess of $100bil…. Trinidad and Tobago by comparison, with a popln of 1.3million and a much higher GDP per capita (+$26.6k), would have a GDP of +$34.5bil).

Honestly, I had a great vacation. I do however feel like I missed something by not exploring and engaging in the “real” culture of the people and country. Maybe ultimately that lost opportunity is the true price one pays for staying in the ivory T.

The Fox, Grapes, and a Yoruba Horseman

I don’t know if anything hurts as much as having your heart set on grabbing a particular piece at an auction and then losing out. What makes it worse of course is being beaten down by an online entity while your’s truly is in the live audience. It’s the testosterone curse that seems to afflict men and women alike!!

Collecting Tribal African Art has opened up a new world of “tentative obsessions”, where I started with Dan and Fang masks, moved through Yoruba and Kuba, and currently I remain fixated on Igala and Izzi (Igbo) pieces. This is not to say that I’m not moved by the occasional bout of “ikenga” or “firespitter” weakness, but one learns to control (arguably) spend at some point.

E1 Ogbodo Enyi Mask, Izzi,  Nigeria

E1 Ogbodo Enyi Mask, Izzi, Nigeria

This “Ogbodo Enyi” is the mask I missed out on. From “Igbo Arts : Community and Culture” (1984) comes the following excerpt,

“The role of women in regard to Ogbodo Enyi has changed even more drastically in one area. In 1975 children of the Izzi village group Nkaliki began to die from illnesses attributed to unspecified “evil spirits”. Petitions presented to the community oracle, Uke, succeeded in dispelling these spirits, order between the human and supernatural realms was restored and the deaths stopped. However in return for its intercession and patronage, the oracle, in a dream to its priestess, made an extraordinary and unique request. Uke asked Nkaliki women to organize and dance Ogbodo Enyi in its honor. Now well established throughout Nkaliki, the women’s masquerade represents a complete departure from all known Igbo (and other Nigerian) masking traditions- traditions that dictate all such activities as exclusively male perogatives.”

E2 Yoruba Head Crest, Nigeria

E2 Yoruba Head Crest, Nigeria

Cue the Yoruba horseman. I absolutely had no intention of bidding on this piece, (especially since it was listed before the Ogbodo Enyi), but it is one of those pieces that show a well proportioned perspective that appealed to me. The problem is that if one does enough research, gets hung up on patinas enough, and clings to the altar of provenance, one is apt to miss out on appreciating certain pieces based on the simple criteria of their beauty or “presence”.

E1,E2 Photo Credits : Willis Henry Auctions, American Indian & Ethnographic Art Auction 052613

The African Spirit in the context of Religion.

Driving through Philly today I saw several people both middle-aged, and young folk, from all walks of life, seeking alms or money at traffic stops. Faced with the “realization” of limited resources (since one can’t help everyone) I mollified my conscience through the application of moral logic. The thinking followed the path that while it is “good (?)” to wish love, peace, and happiness to others, the “actualization” of tangible lifestyle changes is usually a personal one.  The problem with logic of course is that it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem or alleviate the plight of others. While I have not embraced any particular African religion per se I have developed an appreciation of aspects of the “African Spirit” through (what I can only describe as fascinating research on) African Tribal Art which has yielded the occasional eureka moment and helped me question and put into perspective my own religious belief system.


E1 Ogbodo Enyi (“Elephant Spirit”) mask 

I’m not seeking the “home run” on this issue, just looking for a quiet place (or vantage) where I can compare, contrast and move on with a better understanding. Consider the example of the “Elephant Spirit” mask. The Ogbodo Enyi[1] masquerade was used in the process of male socialization in the Igbo tribe. Ogbodo Enyi (“spirit elephant”) is not specifically an elephant spirit but the elephant is a “fitting model” because it’s “singular power and endurance also characterize the volatile spirit” of the adult male. It is this level of “abstraction”, modeling, and “transposition of spiritual characteristics” that I find particularly creative throughout the ethos of African Tribal Art.

If a person considers his belief in the existence of a higher being or not, this can be mapped on a one- dimensional continuum of “atheist to believer”. We can also up the level of complexity by several orders of magnitude and model the mapping as a “realization-actualization-need-choice” transitive point bound by let’s say four dimensions.

At this point it would be clear that the mechanism behind the choice of a religion is neither “right nor wrong” (as opposed to the flawed logic of an analysis which is correct/incorrect). The dichotomies of “right/wrong”, “sin/sinless”, “good/bad” are based on a collective framework of rules used to determine conformance levels, much in keeping with the needs of a society to promote rules related to standards of behavior.

In both society and religion there is also a high propensity for the common existence of a “profit motive” which is tied to sustainability and longevity. As a result one may find the need to ostracize differences in opinions and suppress or ratify changes in thinking by using processes designed to obfuscate rather than clarify. In a nutshell, it is far easier to apply punitive measures than to change rules or even make slight adjustments in keeping with different scenarios. From an external perspective it may also be necessary to protect one’s way of life by taking a combination of tactical, strategic, and prophylactic measures.

The choice of the higher power or the religion we ascribe to denigrates simply to a personal preference.  The reasoning behind the preference or “the why” is related to “personal drivers” that can be diverse, and vary in complexity from combinations of timing, exposure, environment, value and reward, need, and experience.  The irony is that our closeness to God may be more linked to our ability or lack thereof to accept religious differences in others rather than to belong to a specific religion, or to follow a certain code.

[1] Cole, H. M. & Aiakor, C. C. (1984), Igbo Arts, Community and Cosmos. p155

[E1] Photo Credit to Material Culture (Max Garb Ethnographic Arts Auction) 2013

Size can make a Difference!!

In Swahili Kubwa Mvulana (KM) means “Big Boy”, the name I gave to my favorite Fang Bieri (Byeri) figure. In keeping with the Fang principle of “Balance of Opposites” KM seemed pretty content with his lot, but I sensed as a sculpture he had a lot more potential.


KM (middle) hanging out with pals

I found KM in November of 2012, sans belly-button and genitalia – the belly button was a due to a recent break, while there was a 2 inch drilled cavity where his manhood should have been. There was actually some deterioration within the cavity (which required filling) and ultimately led to the following pictoral “famine to feast” or “rags to riches” story.

KM - Before & After!!

KM – Before & After!!

It’s not surprising to find the genitalia removed from Bieri or Dengese sculpture. The problem with restoring pieces is that one tries to develop a consistency of form, age, and cutting style. This is an expensive and risky process, but when it works it is well worth the effort.

Shaping the Belly-Button

Shaping the Belly-Button

Hexagonal Approach

Hexagonal Approach

Operating Table

Operating Table

Belly-Button insertion!

Belly-Button insertion!

Belly-Button Inserted, "Aged", & Stained!

Belly-Button Inserted, “Aged”, & Stained!

Plugging cavity to stop rot and to keep insects out.

Plugging cavity to stop rot and to keep insects out.

Glued & Attached with pins!!

Glued & Attached with pins!!

KM smiling on the inside!!

KM smiling on the inside!!

Five Things One Should Know about the Ijele Headdress


In his analysis of the Igbo concept of their cosmos, M. A. Onwuejeogwu (1972) observes that their universe is divided into four major departments ‘uwa’ refers to the world of man; ‘mmo’ refers to the ancestors; ‘alusi’ includes forces such as the river force ‘Idemile’; and ‘Okike’ is God. These four divisions are conceptually united on the Ijele headdress.

Igbo Ijele mask

Igbo Ijele mask

The size ranges from over four to as much as six meters in height, with a diameter of about three meters. Ijele is by far the most monumental of all Igbo masks, and makes an appearance once every 25 years. The structure is an open cone framework at the top supporting attached figures, and a cylindrical base. There may be some connection to the architectural forms used by the Northern Igbo, and hence by extension the community relation between all facets of family and society.

Ijele Community forms and symbols.

Ijele Community forms and symbols.

The symbols at the top of the mask represent important aspects of community life, and fall into three categories ;

  • man and his activities,
  • the Spirit world,
  • the animals and the forest.
Ijele "uli" symbols

Ijele “uli” symbols

Panels of patterned velvet hang from the bottom of the frame. In body painting, these designs are called ‘uli’ patterns, named after the juice or indigo used as the painting medium.

Ijele is also a leading spirit (mmuo). As a rule, Igbo masks do not represent specific spirits but rather dramatize particular attributes of humans, animals, spirits and ancestors. However, since some Igbo masks dramatize the close parallels between the living and the dead, as does the maiden-spirit mask ensemble, which Ijele resembles in terms of style and artistic tradition, one may infer that the leading mask Ijele incarnates those venerated ancestors to whom a supra-sensible power had revealed the land and how to prosper on it (Davidson 1969).

“The Ijele mask broadens our understanding of the mask in African societies. The cone-cylinder form and the headdress construction relate to the Igbo environment in their architectural referents, and its tableau provides a social narrative of Igbo life. Its vivid colors and elaborate ornamentation reflect the resources of Igbo wall painting and door carving. Ijele as a mask is ultimately an artistic projection of the Igbo ideal of achievement, authority, and status associated with the founding fathers/ancestors, the channel through which flows the ideological strength of the Igbo universe.”[1]

[1] The Igbo Ijele Mask Author(s): Chike C. Aniakor

Reviewed work(s): Source: African Arts, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Jul., 1978), pp. 42-47+95 Published by: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center Stable URL: .

Goodwill Hunting & Slam Dunks

I stumbled upon an extraordinary explosion of generosity, charity, and volunteerism this weekend. It happened at the Rockaway Community Center (aka Action Center) in support of Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. The event was organized by Tyson Chandler and his wife Kimberly (Rebound 4 Rockaway), who were ably assisted by their crew (eg. Ashley Barnett & Will), members of their church, Officers at the community center, local volunteers (eg. Sam), and vounteer groups (including New York Cares, Save the Children, and the Red Cross).

Relief Site Layout

Relief Site Layout

The site was organized in the gym, having approximately 12 stations, starting with Bleach and cleaning products on the right, Clifbuilders protein products, through blankets, hot meals (at the center), and warm clothing, sweaters, water, Nestle baby products, and pampers at the left. At the exit participants could also select a “cleaning kit” containing a mop and cleaning supplies, and a “relief box” containing food stuff and dried goods.

Kimberly Chandler with Ashley Burnett

Kimberly Chandler with Ashley Burnett

Kimberly did a great job of keeping things moving, her experience at prior New Orleans (Katrina), efforts coming in handy. The volume of supplies was simply incredible and everyone, ladies included played a huge role in offloading the relief boxes from the trailer and stocking them inside the center. The atmosphere was incredible and the pace frenetic at times but we all did the best we could.

Tyson Chandler manning the Exit station!!

Tyson Chandler manning the Exit station!!

There are a lot of positives and takeaways, but the Knicks played the Wizards on Friday night, with a midday game at the Garden on Sunday, and Tyson found time on Saturday evening to show up and assist. It’s a hard way to build a brand, requiring sacrifices from family, and friends, but it’s the best way. Maybe it’s a sad testament to our society, when sportsmen step up and are readily embraced as role models, but his arrival sent a lift throughout the center, among the volunteers, and rippled to the hundreds of people seeking relief supplies, some of whom had waited in line for FL-voting like  hours. It was simply a fantastic day!!


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