Afikpo Masks


otugukpokpo or woodpecker is an animal mask worn in okwu masquerades and funeral rites; also worn by musicians okunkpa. Mask carver: Okocha Ota jr.


mbeke mask representing the white race, oyibo or mbeke meaning white man in Igbo language. According to history the mask is named after a British medical officer, Dr. Baikie, who worked among the eastern Igbo during the mid-1800s. The mask represents a wide range of European characters, i.e. colonial officers, missionaries, merchants. Mask carver: Okocha Ota jr.


Igiri meaning lunacy worn only during iko-okochi  (a dry season festival) as part of a dance choreography to represent the erratic movements of a madman. Mask carver: Okocha Ota jr.

IMG_5393Afikpo, 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.img_1219nigerian-masks-001nigerian-masks-2-001fullsizerender-13Biography 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


IMG_5391 (1)

From National Art and Communication, “The Igbo and Their Neighbors 1983

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:

“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:

-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.

**All rights reserved by Lesley Lababidi. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required.

All Photographs and text are under international copyright laws. No re-use without the written permission of Lesley Lababidi 2023.

10 thoughts on “Afikpo Masks

  1. I am really enjoying all the information about the Durbar and now all about the masks . I really appreciated the pictures and explanations, as I can remember the masks quite well. It really brings back a lot of memories and I am given a push to look up more information about them . Thank you for the incentive and interesting writings. I am looking forward to the next installment.

    • Hi Joyce, I am sure you remember these masks. I thought you might even have some in your house as they were popular in the mid-70s. I remember meeting Okocha several times. I often wonder what happened to him since his art are on my walls for all these years! L.

  2. Informative and unique! These masks give us a glimpse into a culture of such richness, artistry and mystery. The collection is absolutely stunning and the articles you have found are a true treasure as well. Thank you , Lesley!!!! Awesome, as usual !

  3. As a symbolic representation of history or reality, Mask(s) serves different purposes in African cultures, specifically Nigeria. It has a long history, and it can be used to disguise oneself from the wrath of the gods. It originated from the Greek ritual festivities to impersonate, and disguise oneself from Dionysus (the god of ‘fertility’). Aristophane was the first person to impersonate god by dressing like animal, wearing mask (animal face), hoof, and tail in a comic way just to worship and act as a god himself. African masks, on the one hand, are used, not purposely for religious purposes like the Greeks, but also for demonstrating histories, histories of colonialism (encounter between the whites and the local people), and about traditional religion (to show that it one time existed). Mask is very important element in todays’ theatrical performance. The make-ups, we watch in films, for the purpose of imitation, impersonation, or improvisation, are the offshoot of the wood or iron or silver or bronze ‘Masks and Masking’. You really have done a very insightful and well-done research by exploring the mask tradition. Keep on exploring and exposing Africa, and its ways of life. What you do is a new crusade, in favour of ‘Heart of Darkness’ (in Conrad’s words), in the western eye. Tell them more about Africa, they will understand and agree with you better. Na gode, sannu. A yi Jumu’a lafiya.

    • Barka d’sallah, ya Mutala. Sannu da kadai. Na gode, daywa. I always enjoy your comments; they offer so much to consider and delve deeper on a fascinating and immense subject. Thank you for bringing out the importance of masks and masquerades over the centuries and from other cultures, which reveal stories, myths, and lessons whether in theatre, movies, or books. Everything has a meaning and masks give a chance to consider the story rather than judge the wearer. Thank you for bringing those thoughts forward. It is an important conversation. L.

  4. Really interesting! I so would like to see them in person. The masks are quite different from the masks we selected in Venice, Italy. The difference certainly is indicative of their own cultures!
    Well done!

    • It is fascinating how humans use masks to disguise themselves for the purpose of express thoughts, emotions, and other lives. I am trying to think other than Halloween and fancy dress dances if Americans use masks in social context? Maybe at marti gras? L.

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