Ijo Canoe Mask

Object Title: Ijo Canoe Mask

Materials: Wood, pigment

Country: Nigeria

Cultural: Ijo People

Date Created: 1st Half of 20th Century

The Ijo may be divided into two major categories as far as Art and Ethnography: the Kalabari Ijo of River State and the ‘Western Ijo’ (actually a group of some 18 clans) of Delta State.

The Kalabari Ijo were dominated by trader-kings; chiefs that rose to prominence and hegemony by controlling the trade routes along the rivers leading inland and controlling access to goods that were sought after by Europeans anchored at Sea ports on the Coast. An almost unbroken lineage of such leaders exists to this day and dates back well over a hundred years – prior to that numerous lesser chiefs controlled multiple areas and warred almost constantly.

In an ethnographic context, most of the art is created to placate the spirits of nature, primarily those of the rivers and seas, and to honor leaders and important elders – primarily for their mercantile prowess. The Ross mask is in the form of a Canoe, which would have been worn with a fiber costume atop the head, along with masks depicting various forms of water creatures. When not in use, as the field photo indicates, these masks were kept in the house of the ancestral/chiefly shrines.

The Jonga people live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the great central basin known as the ‘Mongo cuvette’. They are a Mongo people, meaning that they speak a form of the Central Bantu Mongo dialect and are culturally part of a cluster of peoples who have traditionally occupied this region. The Mongo peoples produce very little art, but at their periphery, where their own indigenous culture meets art-producing neighbors, the Mongo sub-groups sometimes create incredible abstract objects partially modeled on neighboring forms.

The Jonga appear to have migrated from further North with several other ethnic groups a few hundred years ago and due to strife between themselves and their original neighbors, settled at the Eastern Border of Mongo Basin roughly in the center of Congo. The art of the Jonga is not well understood and few objects have been collected with hard data.

We may speculate that Jonga masking is used in an initiatory context as with some of their neighbors but in truth, we don’t know. There do not seem to be enough examples known for these masks to have been part of any large or widespread cult among the Jonga. That they may have been the work of only one cluster of villages or perhaps even a single village is also possible given the scarcity and the regularity of design.


Exhibition History:

In Memoriam – Bonnie Terrill Ross (1956-2022). New York: QCC Art Gallery of CUNY, October 12, 2023, to February 16, 2024.