Unmasking the “Truth”

Lani McGuinness



Photographic print, photographer unknown, ca. 1948, Nigeria, gelatin silver print, Museum no. Af,B61.20. Image © The British Museum, London.

Every object has a different way of telling its story. Every now and then, the story of an object unravels in a completely unexpected direction, broadening the ways in which one can think about it. Ultimately, it may transpire that what matters is not so much the object itself, but the place it occupies in history, and the traditions it represents. This week’s object, a postcard of a masquerade in Nigeria, is one of these cases. A well timed-find for the season, the card was slotted into a dark brown paper mount and sent as a Christmas card in 1948, from Ahoada, Nigeria. Sent by the English archaeologist Kenneth Murray (1903 – 1972) as a seemingly innocuous,  light-hearted take on the festive season, this card in fact turned out to be a sterling example of many problems related to representation and identity in Africa.

The photograph depicts a man performing a masquerade, dressed in a costume that includes cloths, reeds, bells around his ankles, and a round mask with feathers on top. A crowd of male adults and children watch the performance. The inscription inside the card (unfortunately not pictured) reads: “With best wishes for Christmas 1948. From Kenneth Murray. “Nwala”. From Ahoada”. The term ‘Nwala’ may refer to the type of mask or costume depicted. It is not clear when, where or by whom the photograph was taken, although it would be fair to assume that it was taken in, or close to, Ahoada, circa 1948.

Masquerade is a common art form in many African nations, and often has a dynamic relationship with changes in the fabric of the community of which it is a part. Masquerade can be a site for innovation and cultural syncretism, characteristics that are regularly excluded from descriptions of African artistic practice. Historically, African art has been classified as ‘tribal’ and ‘traditional’, and ranked as very low on the hierarchy of global visual culture.

Cultural exchange between Africa and Europe can be found from the fifteenth century onwards, and was often based on a relationship of fairly equal [1] terms. Colonial expansion and establishment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave birth to a different representation of Africa and its people, often backed by the newly opened-up discourse of scientific racism. People in Europe became interested in the ‘uncivilised’, ‘barbaric’, ‘tribal’ cultural groups of Africa. Missions were sent to bring civilisation and Christianity to the continent, and ethnographers and archaeologists began to study and publish work on specific cultures in Africa.

An interest in the visual culture of Africa was engendered in Europe, as images of the continent became a popular commodity amongst Europeans. The photographer Edmond Fortier (1862 – 1928) produced postcards featuring Africans in scenes of everyday life. Featuring the ubiquitous shots of topless African women, such as the example featured below, Fortier’s work contributed significantly to the eroticisation and exotification of Africans. It was widely circulated and reproduced, and is still a popular early representation of what African people were thought to be. It is, however, quite often a misrepresentation – at best it is a narrow, blinkered view of what the photographer knew his audience wanted to see; at worst it is alienating, exoticising, and entirely misleading. Unfortunately, this has been a habit that has affected perceptions of Africa for decades.

Postcard 1093, Edmond Fortier, ca. 1905-6, Image © Wikimedia Commons.

Postcard 1093, Edmond Fortier, ca. 1905-6, Image © Wikimedia Commons.

The Christmas card in the British Museum can lead a researcher down many paths; it raises a variety of questions. Where did the foreign rug worn by the performer come from? What does this cultural syncretism say about the specific masquerade that is being performed? Is it indicative of this group’s experiences under colonialism? Where are all the women? What part, if any, do women play in this masquerade? But the question I have chosen to explore in this article is one of representation and identity. Under colonial rule, distinct cultures were grouped together, in order to form a more homogenous culture. This still has an impact on the ways that people, including some African people, think about themselves today.

The British Museum has labeled the masquerade featured in this photograph as ‘Igbo’. The Igbo are a large ethnic group in south-eastern Nigeria. The area includes core groups who consider themselves Igbo, and dozens of smaller groups that had distinct cultures and/or languages. The British colonial authorities had trouble administering to the hundreds of village groups in this area because of their local autonomy.[1] Groups that did not identify as Igbo became classified as part of the larger group, and many are still affected by this today.

The catalogue entry also lists the place of origin as ‘Ahoada, Nigeria’; investigation has revealed that Ahoada, along with the villages that immediately surround it, is actually the native home of a cultural group called the Ekpeye. In 1966, John Picton spent a short time conducting field research in Ahoada, although he did not publish his findings until 1988. In 1966, just eighteen years after Kenneth Murray sent his Christmas card, John Picton found that the villages in and around Ahoada identified as socially and culturally distinct from other nearby groups, and in fact always applied the term ‘Igbo’ to cultural and social phenomena that belonged or originated elsewhere.[2] So it seems that if the postcard really is from Ahoada, then the dancer and the audience were not, in fact, Igbo.

But how to prove that the photograph was taken in Ahoada?

John Picton’s 1988 article Ekpeye Masks and Masking is the seminal work on Ekpeye masking traditions. In the course of his research, he collected information on the categories of masquerade performed by the Ekpeye, and the designs of the masks that were used. Picton identifies three masking institutions: Egbukere, Aarungu, and Owu.[3] It is to the third classification, Owu, to which I believe the performance pictured in the Christmas card belongs. Owu had an extensive range of characters, many of which were human figures. Picton identifies a character called ‘Nwana’, an old palm-wine tapper, whose appearance was said to open the show.[4] His mask is pictured below, and shows striking similarities to the mask in the card from the British Museum. The name, as well, suggests that there could have been a difference in translation, or even a misspelling or mishearing of the word. It may be that the performance pictured in Kenneth Murray’s Christmas card is of an Ekpeye Owu masquerade, and that the character being depicted is Nwana, the old palm-wine tapper. However, we cannot know for certain. As with many examples of African art, this photograph in the British Museum has lost its identity, and its history; all we can really do from here is guesswork.

Image 3: Ekpeye Owu mask, ‘Nwana’ the old palm-wine tapper, late 1950s, 19cm, Ahoada, Nigeria. Image source: John Picton, “Ekpeye Masks and Masking”, African Arts, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Feb., 1988), pp. 46 – 53 +94 (p. 52).

Ekpeye Owu mask, ‘Nwana’ the old palm-wine tapper, late 1950s, 19cm, Ahoada, Nigeria. Image © John Picton, “Ekpeye Masks and Masking”, African Arts, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Feb., 1988), pp. 46 – 53 +94 (p. 52).

The issues of identity that surround the Christmas card at the British Museum are indicative of the predicaments that one comes across in the study of objects from Africa. Attempting to assign an identity to objects often raises more questions than it answers, and requires the researcher to extract valuable information from studies from the colonial period, which are often racist in nature. Breakthroughs, such as coming across a likely identity of an object, are incredibly rewarding, and make the whole process suddenly seem less frustrating!


[1] Herbert M. Cole, “Igbo Arts and Ethnicity: Problems and Issues”, African Arts, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Feb., 1988), pp. 26 – 27 + 93 (p. 26).

[2] John Picton, “Ekpeye Masks and Masking”, African Arts, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Feb., 1988), pp. 46 – 53 +94 (p. 46).

[3] Ibid, p. 46. Apparently, at the time of writing Egbukere was still the major cultural celebration among the Ekpeye, and was regulated by strict rules. The masquerade is characterized by its elaborate masks. The masks associated with the Aarungu masquerade appeared very similar to Picton, and he had trouble extracting information about this institution (p. 49).

[4] Ibid, p. 50.

Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A.  If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us:


Lani McGuiness –

Lani graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2012 and has since joined the History of Design MA at the V&A/Royal College of Art. She studies on the Asian strand and is currently looking into how the North Korean government portrays itself to the outside world – specifically how women are designed as mothers of the state.


© Lani McGuiness 2013. All Rights Reserved

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