head crest

Efik people
Creation date
wood, skin, pigment, metal, bone, fiber
12 x 32 3/4 x 8 in.
Credit line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Eiteljorg
Accession number
Currently On View In
Eiteljorg Suite of African and Oceanic Art - W301

The lifelike appearance of this wood carving is enhanced by the application of animal skin over its surface. The addition of metal teeth and pupils along with painted eyebrows furthers the illusion. The large curved shapes projecting from the head are a variation of elaborate hairstyles worn by some young girls at their “coming-of-age” ceremonies before they marry.

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Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

This dramatic crest, which may appear fanciful to a western viewer’s eye, is actually a lifelike depiction designed to imitate the confident countenance and spiraling hairstyle of an adolescent girl at her initiation ceremony. The head was carved of wood, over which fresh, damp animal skin was stretched taut. The pale skin tightened as it dried, then was secured with pegs, nails, or string. The crest has bone teeth and metal inserts for eyes, and it is finished with painted hair, eyebrows, and circular markings at the temple. The shaved hair patterns and dark circles at the temples resemble the ritual body markings of Efik women. From a slight distance, the crest, with its real skin and gleaming eyes, gives an impression of haunting realism that is unusual among African masks.

As in other parts of Africa, men created and wore these feminine ritual headpieces for participating in funerals, initiations, or entertainments, or in a leopard-spirit cult. Typical of crests and masks of Nigeria’s Cross River region, this piece would have been worn on top of the masker’s concealed head. Complemented by a flowing garment, the crest and its magnificently coiled, ramlike horns of hair would have emphasized the wearer’s stature. The object packs a striking visual punch, at once naturalistic and idealized.

In sharp detail, this mask renders an actual hairstyle of Efik girls.