Agwe Chaka (Funerary 'Trickster' Mask)

By: Kathryn Cua || Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:

Cultures of the Cross River region of southeastern Nigeria and western Cameroon, such as the Ejagham of Nigeria and the Banyang of Cameroon, are known for the distinctive art of covering a wooden carving with animal or human skin. The agwe chaka is a mask belonging to this variety, and it originates from the Widekum of Cameroon. The agwe chaka is a large domed-face helmet mask and it has become one of the most well-known features of Widekum culture. It is representative of the easternmost examples of skin-covered masks, which can be found as far east as the forests of Ejagham territory of Cameroon to as far west as Ibibio and Igbo territories of Nigeria. Subtle aesthetic differences of the mask exist due to regional variations. Overall, however, the agwe chaka are very conservative, indicative of its use within a cultural institution that does not tolerate innovation.

The agwe chaka masks are widely distributed in Widekum; different parts of the same village might have their own mask. The helmet masks are used by the Nchebe, Nchebi, Nchibe, Nchibi, and the Ntsebe all of whom belong to the same society but differ based on ethnic group. These societies serve hunters and warriors. Nchibe are the ones mainly associated with skin-covered masks as they are performed in funerary ceremonies as a trickster. Masqueraders hold a machete when performing and wear a loosely fitted embroidered gown, under which is placed a raffia bag stuffed with cloth. This gives the wearer a hunched-back appearance to communicate the idea of a child being carried on one’s back. The “child” is intended to symbolize the man whose funeral is being celebrated.

Before the agwe chaka is performed, the mask is rubbed with palm oil and the mouth and eyes with kaolin. Oil is applied until the skin glistens. When it is time for the mask to be stored, it is wrapped in sacking, put into a raffia bag, and kept close to the cooking fire. Because the masks are owned by families, many are reluctant to show the masks to strangers. Moreover, the masks are never taken outside the village. Masks that are considered to be lesser in value, however, are sometimes taken to neighbouring locations for masquerades.

Distinguishing Features

  • Domed helmet mask
  • Represent a male
  • Massive size
  • Abstracted, stylised facial features
    • Geometric jaws, eye sockets, mouths, keloids, cheekbones, and ears
  • Eyes and mouth usually protuberant
    • Rectangular, triangular or oval
    • Sometimes teeth (palm midrib bark or similar stiff substance) inserted into mouth
  • Vertical ridge on dome of most masks
    • Beginning at back, reaching middle of forehead
    • Ridge crossed at right angles by horizontal line above eyebrows
  • Area below eyes (excluding nose and mouth) often flattened
  • Raised knobs or keloids depicted on temples
    • Sometimes on forehead
    • Used to secure skin covering with string during drying period
    • String marks observed on many masks
  • Tautly stretched, smooth goat or antelope hide
    • Covers surface of mask and folded over edge
    • Normally dark brown or black in colour
    • Black dye applied to skin and finished with palm oil
  • Some masks have beards of human hair
  • Basketry base

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