The term masquerade can refer to a masking performance, a masked
performer, or the character embodied by the mask itself. Masquerade is
an important mode of cultural expression for several groups from Nigeria.
Molly Egondu Uzo researched Ikeji masquerade as it is now performed in
the New York City area. Tonye Victor Erekosima researched the Ofirima
masquerade as it is performed by the Rivers State Forum in Washington,
D.C. The following are excerpts from their research reports.
by Molly Egondu Uzo
In Umuchu in Nigeria, as in most of Africa, "masquerade is exclusively
for men. It's a macho thing," said Mr. Victor Emenuga, a member of
the Umuchu cultural troupe, based in New Jersey. Mr. Emenuga was addressing
an audience at the 1996 Hudson River Arts Festival in Poughkeepsie, New
York. The purpose of masquerade can be to entertain, to commend achievers,
to chastise evil-doers, to bring messages of hope, peace, or impending
disaster, to mourn the dead or to receive a special newborn, or to grace
a ceremonial occasion like a festival. To these ends, its elaborately
created physical presence evokes a great range of feelings, from approbation
and appreciation to fear and awe. A good masquerade has admirable human
or animal features and is a great dancer, too. Men use masquerade as an
outlet for their macho energy. They are strong enough to invoke and mingle
with the spirits of the dead, but women are not. Of course, it makes them
feel good about themselves, and life goes on. Traditionally, masquerades
have the highest level of freedom in a village. You cannot fight a masquerade.
You cannot unmask it. And you have no right to say the name of the person
under the mask, even if you know who it is. Once under the mask, he becomes
sacred, a person used to embody the spirit.
of Akwa Ibom, a Nigerian regional organization in the Washington, DC,
area, re-enact a masquerade procession at the 1995 Festival of American
Folklife. Smithsonian Photo by Jeff Tinsley
As more Africans make the United States their permanent residence, some
adapt their traditional festivals to their new homes. New Yam and New
Year festivals are now common. In addition to dance, food, and pageantry,
some festivals feature masquerades. For instance, the Ikeji festival of
the Arondizuogu community (one of the Igbo clans in Nigeria) in New York
cannot be complete without the Ikeji masquerades.
Sometimes adaptation seems the only alternative for surviving. In Igboland
there is no one-man masquerade, but we have it here in the United States,
thanks to the use of audio cassettes for background music. The Ikeji festival
masquerades are among the few that still try to preserve their tradition.
But they come out only once a year, in summer. They still uphold their
myths. They have only a few hours of Ikeji masquerade in New York, as
opposed to four days in Arondizuogu. They don't have enough skilled drummers
to back up their performances, so they occasionally resort to taped music.
To avoid lawsuits, they limit open interaction with the audience.
"Masquerades with controversial attributes, like Ogaranya Afo Toro,
known for his excesses including oversized private parts, are cautiously
avoided," says Chris Awam, originally from Arondizuogu. "But
we will still perform the most authentic masquerade in the United States.
At least our masquerades don't wear socks." Awam is making fun of
some groups whose masquerades are so human that they wear socks. Spirits
don't even have feet. They can float in the air. Socks are very human;
they are foreign goods as well. Traditional masquerades would never wear
Mary "Molly" Uzo is a Nigerian-born community cultural activist
who has researched and presented programs in upstate New York on African
masquerade traditions including those of her own Igbo ethnic group from
by Tonye Victor Erekosima
The Ofirima (Shark) masquerade is generally staged by men only. The headpiece
that is worn indicates the kind of masquerade being presented. Members
of the Rivers State Forum, an organization named after a province in southeastern
Nigeria, staged the Ofirima during their annual outing in Washington,
D.C. In the traditional outfit of an appropriately dressed masquerade,
the headpiece is a faithful model of the ferocious fish. It was carved
by a local resident. The many male dancers who accompany him were also
in their proper traditional attire, because every Rivers man living here
has at least one such outfit in his possession.
Ibibio masquerade was danced at the 1995 Folklife Festival by members
of Akwa Ibom, an organization of area residents with origins in the Cross
Rivers State in Nigeria. Smithsonian Photo by Jeff
The distinctive style of this dance is a leisurely cadence with broad
sweeps of the arms and slow pacing of the feet; this shows opulence, casualness,
and a dignified bearing. It is very different from much of the dancing
done by the Rivers people's neighbors. Some say it reflects the slow ebb
and flow of water in their geographical setting; others, their history
as traders who have trafficked with the outside world for centuries with
Audience members in Washington retain the Nigerian practice of informal
concourse through the arena where the masquerade was being played, but
only an entertainment mask like Ofirima could be performed. The shark
is ferocious, so an attendant - dabbed with while chalk or kaolin to dispel
negative forces - follows it and checks its aggressiveness. As a lead
dancer, he wears an eagle feather, the badge of an accomplished member
of the Ekine men's dancing society. He precedes the masquerade pouring
a libation and invoking the ancestors to provide a safe and nimble performance.
That day, rich attire and collective spontaneity were shared between the
dancers and the audience of Rivers women who enthusiastically joined them.
Everyone on the scene left feeling they had participated in a memorable
Dr. Tonye Victor Erekosima was born in the Rivers State region of Nigeria
and has done extensive research on the Kalabari ethnic group, of which
he is a member. He is a scholar and a religious minister and divides his
professional time between Washington, D.C., and Nigeria.