Okenekene Restoration

Restoring African Tribal Art is always a tricky business. The interesting part is that more is not necessarily better with respect to older pieces but while there are varied perspectives, the final analysis comes down to the deterioration of the ‘authentic’ piece, and the addition of aesthetic features.

The Okenekene headdress lends itself to restoration for the following reasons:

  1. There are several removable component pieces (chameleon, python),
  2. The piece itself portrays an Okenekene narrative,
  3. The headdress showed signs of repeated use.

Front section of Okenekene showing existing wave abstraction but missing the ‘Fishing Dragon’.

The frontal area of the purchased piece shows the feet of the broken ‘fishing dragon’ and the missing ‘wave’.

I was fortunate to come across this piece at a Merton Simpson estate auction. I suspect the only reason I was able to acquire the piece was as a result of a rare computer glitch which left me as the only bidder on the floor. With some verbal prompting from my Mum the auctioneer acquiesced and closed the deal.

click photo for video link: OKENEKENE RESTORATION


In another of many related providential occurrences I had been gifted a book titled ‘Ways of the Rivers’ after purchasing pieces from the Alfred Prince collection. This book provided a lot of research on Okenekene headdresses, and my favorite Delta tribes (Urhobo, Ogoni, Ijo).

My luck had not run out since I was also able to have the restoration done (molding, carving, finishing) by the talented family Miller. It was a fantastic learning experience since the existing surface finish showed wonderful signs of ageing (crackling, alligatoring) and changed my perception on analyzing the quality of pieces forever.


Ekine, the Dancing People, and Water Spirits

There are times when Collecting African Tribal Art is full of mystical, and historical/cultural perspectives. Finding an Ijo “water spirit” mask, is always one of those times.


E1 Ijo - Water Spirit mask

On the west coast of Africa, to the south of Nigeria, in the delta region, there is a tribe known as the Ijo. The Ijo style of carving has not succumbed to the Yoruba style primarily because of the proximity of the rivers, swamp, and ocean that frame the life and culture of the Ijo. The powerful Ekine (also known as Sekiapu, meaning “dancing people” in Ijo)[1] society of the Ijo maintains its style alongside alongside Yoruba traditions of the Oshugbo, or Ogboni society.  The main dance group of Ekine is the Agbo, or Magbo, society. The mask shown below belongs to this group, and is one of three used with antelope and bush-cow representations.


E2 Mask (igodo) - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

The Kalabari (an Ijoid ethnic group)[2] legend tells of the abduction of Ekineba,

“a beautiful young woman of a delta town, by the dancing water spirits. Ekineba was taken to their home beneath the creeks. The mother of the water spirits was angry at what they had done, and commanded her children to take Ekineba back to the land of men. Before returning her however each spirit showed her its special play; and when she returned home, she taught the people all the plays she had seen. The plays became very popular and were constantly performed. But the young men found it difficult to obey a certain rule which the water spirits had imposed on her – namely that whenever her people put on one of her plays, she must always be the first to beat the drum. After they had disobeyed this rule three times, the water spirits lost patience and took Ekineba away for good. Since then, men have taken her as the patron goddess of the masquerade; and the Ekine Society which organizes its performance is named after her.”[3]

Water Spirit Mask

This Ekine myth has parallels with other divination myths where teachings are rendered by a local hero who lives with men, but who disappears leaving no descendants when men disobey the rules laid down. [4]

[1] Yoruba, Sculpture of West Africa. William Fagg, et al. , pg.39

E1 AplusAfricanArt Gallery

E2 Yoruba, Sculpture of West Africa. William Fagg, et al. , pg.39

[3] The Kalabari Ekine Society, Robin Horton, 1963

[4] The Kalabari Ekine Society, Robin Horton, 1963

%d bloggers like this: