Work of Art: Sawfish Headdress
Niger River Delta region
Sawfish Headdress
20th Century
Wood, mirrors, nails, and paint
H. 24 1/2 x W. 18 3/4 x L. 89 3/8 in. (62.2 x 47.6 x 227 cm)
Purchased with funds from various donors, by exchange

Horizontal water spirit headdresses in the forms of sawfish, sharks, crocodiles, and other predatory aquatic animals probably originated among the Ijo, coastal fishermen in the delta region of the Niger River. The use of these colorful masquerades then spread to neighboring groups, including the Abua, Ekpeya, and Igbo. Among these riverine peoples, annual festivals honoring water spirits were held to ensure their benevolent influence on fish and crop harvests in the coming year. According to an eyewitness account, in one Ijo community a sawfish headdress, worn by an athletic young male, was brought to the village downriver in a canoe. Having disembarked, the sawfish danced on land, where he was “hunted” by masqueraders representing fishermen.

Whereas many African carvers take great pride in carving an elaborate sculpture from a single piece of wood, the makers of water-spirit masks such as this Sawfish Headdress took advantage of carpentry techniques, whereby fins, teeth, and other components of the whole were carved from separate pieces of wood and attached. Mirrors obtained by trade with outsiders were used for the eyes and to adorn the tail of the sawfish.

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