Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Headdress: Janus (Nkuambok)

19th–20th century
Nigeria, Cross River region
Boki peoples
Wood, cotton, metal, cane, pigment
H. 14 5/8 in. (37.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Evelyn A. J. Hall Charitable Trust Gift and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1987
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 352
This Boki headdress is the finest known example of its kind. Fewer than a dozen of these carved wood crests with cloth-wrapped attachments are known. It is unusual for masquerade ensembles to retain the mixed-media attachments with which they were seen in their original setting, and in this example they are not only beautifully executed but in an excellent state of preservation. Carved from a single piece of wood, the mask depicts two heads that share a single neck attached to a basketry cap. The neck, the areas below the chins, and the sides and tops of the heads have been covered with indigo-dyed, embroidered, strip-woven cotton cloth. Above each brow is a broad, curved "crown" made of basketry covered with similar embroidered cloth. Six cylindrical forms, also made of basketry wrapped with embroidered cloth, rise from the top of the head. The "crown" and the six cylindrical forms probably represent an elaborate hairstyle. The faces are broad and curved, with projecting open mouths and raised scarification marks on the temples, forehead, and cheeks. The faces are identical except for slight differences in the scarification marks and the patterns of embroidery on the coiffure. Both faces have metal inlaid eyes, and small brass pins inserted for the teeth. On one face, a row of small brass bells is attached along the jawline, while on the other is a row of teeth.

There are a few known masquerade associations among the Boki, including nkang, egbege, and bekarum. This striking headdress probably belongs to the egbege association, a society reserved for women and responsible for a number of female affairs, most significantly the institution of fattening-houses for prospective brides. The origins of some motifs in this and other Boki works may be traced to numerous enigmatic stone monoliths known as akwanshi, located just south of the Boki peoples. The origin and significance of the monoliths is unknown; locals testify that the sculptures simply appeared out of the ground, but scholars believe they were carved sometime during the nineteenth century. Several of the monoliths feature raised scarification patterns on the cheeks, forehead, and temples similar to those found on this headdress. These patterns are said to have been historically common in the area. The attachment of brass bells and teeth to the jawline may also allude to antiquated fashions, as akwanshi feature long plaited beards that were ornamented with pendants of bone and brass. The elaborate linear patterns on the neck, chin, and coiffure are a reference to a sacred script known as nsibidi. The same patterns can be found throughout the region in other headdresses, embroidered and appliquéd on cloth, and even chalked on walls.

There are still many gaps in the research regarding Boki material culture. Consequently, a concrete interpretation of the janiform composition of this Boki headdress remains unclear. Many scholars suggest, however, that the dual-headed representation may refer to the omnipotence and omnipresence of divine forces, as well as to male/female duality.
[John J. Klejman, New York, until the 1960s]; Milton D. Ratner Family Collection, Chicago, 1960s–1987; [Pace Primitive and Ancient Art Gallery, New York, until 1987]

Drewal, Henry. Traditional Art of the Nigerian Peoples: The Milton D. Ratner Family Collection. Washington, DC: Museum of African Art, 1977.

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