Nkpe Emblem

Object Title: Nkpe Emblem

Materials: Wood, basketry, vegetable fiber, skulls, horns

Country: Cameroon

Culture: Ejagham

Date Created: First half pf 20th century


Among the Ejagham of the Cross River area of Cameroon, the Nkpe or “leopard” society is one of the most powerful organizations of social regulation. Nkpe leaders, called Seseku, are on par with village chieftains (often the Seseku is also the chieftain) and he is installed for life, usually when he is already of advanced age.

Among the most unusual objects created by the Nkpe society, are woven basketry mats known as Orongho Nkpe, and created at the installation of the new leader. The mat is covered with the skulls of the animals slaughtered by Nkpe members given as tribute in the initial feast for the new leader. Additional objects like a symbolic drum, brooms, animal horns and medicine calabashes are also attached to the mat, and it is then hung high on an interior wall of the house of the new leader, above his wife’s cooking fire. As a result, these mats gain a deep and dark patina from decades of smoke and soot from the fires as well as from the dust that accumulates in the rafters of the hut.

The objects attached have symbolic meaning as the skulls not only represent the fellowship of the Nkpe community in offering food to the new leader, but also the powers of the animals represented – antelopes, goats, monkeys and sometimes crocodiles. The central drum, now missing its tympanum, would have been filled with herbal medicines to repell evil, and protect the society. The bunches of fiber represent brooms to sweep away witchcraft directed at the society and its members.

These emblems are absolutely secret objects never to be seen by the uninitiated. Those not in the Nkpe society no longer can enter the house of the new Seseku as the possibility for them seeing this emblem and other objects is too great and would be of great harm to the uninitiated. When a Seseku dies, the mat is given to the new successor along with a new one created especially for his own installation. The old mat is no longer the focus of any real power but is the property by right of the new leader.


Exhibition History:

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