Kwagh-hir performance mask, Tiv people, Nigeria
wood, pigment, animal skin
12” x 9.5” x 7”
1970’s - 1980’s

$1500 - SOLD

I especially enjoy the facial expression of this particular
example which is somewhat similar to the Pende Mbangu
masks with the mouth represented on one side of the face
and a curved winding nose, which in the Pende culture
represents deformity due to facial paralysis. I am unsure if
that was the purpose of the portrayal of the face on this
mask, or if the expression is just one of a smug smile, but in
any case the mask has a great overall character to it. The
animal skin which has lost its hair originally represented
eyebrows and a beard.
For additional detail click on any thumbnail to see the high resolution version of the image which will open in a new window.
Tiv storytelling, called Kwag-Alom, has been a part of Tiv culture for many decades. It was in the 60's during the height of
the Civil War that the people of Southern Tiv country added visual, musical and kinetic arts to the words of the storyteller
to develop what is know as
Kwag-hir, literally meaning “magical thing”, which includes drums and singing and dancers to
introduce the appearance of an elaborate puppet theater which alternates with dancing masqueraders who act out the
themes of the stories and give them visual drama. The performance starts as the sun goes down and lasts until the sun
comes up. The stories of
Kwag-hir mainly revolved around the core values of Tiv life, as well as political and cultural
sketches depicting revolution and cultural independence from the oppressive British rule and other powerful Nigerian

My friend Ethan Rider, who is a tribal art photographer, consultant and
dealer, has graciously sent me some photographs
and video of
Kwag-hir performances he filmed in Nigeria recently. These are serious performances, not something done
for outsiders. He was there researching the
Kwagh-hir masquerade for a book he is writing. I have included the photos
below along with the video files. Thank you Ethan for your willingness to share these with me and others.
"Most frequently, the large body masks are the main
characters of a masquerade, and the helmet
characters are supporting actors. This helmet mask
character is different from that portrayed on your
mask, but demonstrates how a helmet mask character
can be the focus of a masquerade. Here, the
masquerader wears an expressive helmet mask and a
costume composed of textile strips, and carries a
wooden knife. The man in the photograph who isn't
wearing a shirt is somewhat of a director of the
masquerade; he never portrays a character, although
he does dance and entertain during intermissions. He
carries flaming corn cobs (soaked in kerosene) on a
stick, and leads the dancers around the ring. Because
of the darkness and difficulty of seeing from inside the
masks (especially the larger ones), he ensures the
dancers don't careen into the audience who tightly
encircle the performance area." - ER
"Many of the Kwagh-hir masquerades reinforce
traditional beliefs, such as the power and aggression of
mbatsav gods, yet many other Kwagh-hir
masquerades are instructive about practical matters,
like the benefits of seeing a doctor. This picture shows
helmet masqueraders in a performance of the latter: it
depicts a woman of the night, and an excited man
pursuing her (portrayed in a very animalistic manner)."-
"This photo, depicting a simian mask, is another
example of a helmet masquerader being the sole
featured character of a performance." - ER
"This photo shows two helmet masqueraders firing
arrows into one of the aggressive
mbatsav characters,
depicted as a large body mask who is attacking and
being attacked by human and animal characters, all
carved from a single piece of wood. " - ER
"The first movie, entitled “helmetawesome” depicts the masquerader dancing more slowly than usual, but this is a great snippet because you get an
excellent sense of the talent and size of the band. Comprised of about two dozen members, some vocalists, some instrumentalists, and some both, they
perform almost continuously for hours at a time, with the precision of James Brown’s crew. They have no sheet music, and yet begin each song only
seconds after the next allegory is announced (the order is not determined in advance). Aside from a few intermissions, they perform hundreds of songs
back-to-back, over a period of 6-10 hours. " - ER

"The second movie, called “faceawesome” shows a masquerader wearing a face mask (not a helmet mask), but gives you a better sense of the energy