Afikpo, Nigeria (see map) was a centre of ancient Igbo tradition. These ceremonial masks were used in the 1970’s for elaborate masquerades associated with men’s secret societies and the initiation of boys into them as well as annual festival cycles; all of which was an important part of Afikpo life. All the masks are the creation of Afikpo master carver Okocha Ota Jr.
Some masks represent animals—a goat or a woodpecker. Others are human-like male or female spirits, a white person or a madman. The style is narrow, oval or elongated, delicate: bands of raffia tied to the back of the mask hold it in front of the face.Biography of a mask carver: Okocha Ota Jr.
Born on 11th November 1949 in Afikpo, Nigeria, Ota Okocha Ota Jr. took a serious interest in art and crafts. He studied the Afikpo cults and masquerade traditions and travelled through the eastern part of Nigeria to Calabar, Awka, Nsukka, Ahoada, Ibibio, Edda, Nkporo, and Arochukwu photographing festivals which earned him the nickname, “onyia-oha” meaning the greatest. In January 1966, Okocha Ota Jr. organized a course for apprentices and started to produce various objects drawn from different parts of Eastern region. After the Civil War in 1971, he successfully organized group exhibition in Enugu, Ibadan, Lagos, and Zaria.
How I became an artist
by Okocha Ota jr.
As history may have it, Afikpo is a land rich in arts and culture and it leaves no doubt why I should emerge from this glorious highland. I was born on a bright summer day, 11th November 1949, in a little quarter, known as ‘Godachall Villa’ – a breed of prosperous cultural family at Mgbom village situated at the heartland of Afikpo town, south-east of the Igboland in the East Central State of Nigeria.
I have less to offer on my educational status. I attended and obtained the Ministry of Eduction first school leaving certificate in 1961 in Afikpo. A little further between 1962 and 1965 I trained in a government handicraft vocational school – a detachment of the government owned secondary/ technical school at Afikpo, where I came out with flying colours.
At the age of seven, my father, a renowned physician and a craftsman in Afikpo, called my attention on one evening as one of the beloved sons. Being interested in me, he requested my explanation on why I should characterize in exhibiting before him toys of wooden carvings, clay moulding, and painted pictures of Afikpo masquerades produced by me. I had little of excuse to offer and remember telling him that ” those who live in glass windows should not throw stones.” This reminded him that I was completely of his blood. He wished if I should retort attaining scholastic hero rather than artistry which had been dominated by the family in Afikpo town. I objected and replied, “Daddy, you can’t force nature.” He broke the conversation, shrewd, nodded and remarked before a section of the family: “Keep it up my son, for you are garlanded with laurels of artistic genius which do not grow on trees.” He then recalled the memories of our ancestors and grandfathers viz: Egu, Uzo Iǵbe Oka, Okoroukwu Ukwenyi, Aja Iberekwukwu, Uche Otta and Ekuma Okocha etc., etc. With this remark and impression, I was emotionally geared to embrace crafts, arts, and culture as my hobby. -1974
For further readings about Afikpo traditional art and customs:
-Afikpo Masquerades: Audience and Performers Author(s): Simon Ottenberg Source: African Arts, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Summer, 1973), pp. 32-35+94-95 Published by: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3334798
“We Are Becoming Art Minded”: Afikpo Arts 1988 Author(s): Simon Ottenberg Source: African Arts, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Aug., 1989), pp. 58-67+88 Published by: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3336662
-S. Ottenberg, The Masked Rituals of Afikpo: The Context of an African Art, UW Press, Seattle, 1975.
-“Humorous Masks and Serious Politics among Afikpo Ibo,” S. Ottenberg, African Art and Leadership, ed. by D. Fraser and H. M. Cole, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1972, p. 99.