Maiden Spirit (Agbogho Mmuo) Helmet Mask

Nigeria, Lgbo, North. Late 19th- early 20th centuries
Wood, pigment, paint
Gift of William S. Arnett

Maiden Spirit (agbogho mmuo) masquerades perform annually during the dry season in the Nri-Awka area of northern Igboland. At these performances men dance as adolescent girls, miming and exaggerating their beauty and comportment. They also sing tributes to both real and spirit maidens:

Mmanwu si n’igwe: Masked Spirit from the sky

Udemu na lenu: My fame is potent

These masks exaggerate the smallness of a young girl’s ideal features while the whiteness of her complexion is likened to “the purity of white chalk,” a substance used for ritually marking the body in both West Africa and the African Diaspora. The white pigment also serves as a ground for the elaborate uli decorations painted on young Igbo women’s skin. Some maiden spirit masks have elaborate coiffures, embellished with representations of hair combs modeled after late 19th century ceremonial hairstyles.