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by Entwistle on 9 October 2017

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is exhibiting an imposing and powerful Jukun shoulder mask sold by Entwistle to a private collection and subsequently acquired by the MET...

The enigmatic and arresting mask is imposing both in size (114.3 cm) and morphology as its abstract anthropomorphic form allows it to straddle the division between ‘mask’ and ‘figurative sculpture’ - the mask has power of the former and the presence of the latter. Perhaps, then, the best way to describe the ambiguous form is, according to Marla Berns, Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, as an ‘ambulatory sculpture.’

The mask has been commonly misidentified in the literature as a ‘yoke’ due to its characteristic u-shaped support; however, despite being commonly referred to as a ‘shoulder mask’, it must be worn on top of the head and not on the shoulders. With the various neighbouring traditions of ‘yoke’ masks, such as those of the Mumuye, Kona and Wurkun peoples, the basis of identification becomes dependent on distinguishing visual properties.

The imposing form of the mask, which is sculpted from a single piece of wood, sees a vertical cylinder sculpted with lateral openings of arched form, which allow for the mask to be placed hood-like, one can imagine, on top of the masquerader’s head, which is turned sideways and allows vision through the opening as well.


From the flat top edge of the cylindrical support of the mask emerges a slender cylindrical neck, which, in turn, leads to the striking abstraction of the humanoid head. This large domed feature displays a double arched brow that overhangs close-set ocular features and a short, straight proboscis. At the sides, exaggerated auricular feaatures lend further expressionistic character to the mask.

Nearly all of the masks of this typology were said to have appeared seasonally, especially in conjunction with the annual planting and harvesting of crops, helping to bestow the blessing of agricultural success and community well-being.

The mask has been widely published and was exhibited in the remarkable show Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley, held initially in 2011 at the Fowler Museum, UCLA and subsequently at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University and at the Musée du quai Branly, Paris. It was also featured in the seminal exhibition Die Kunst von Schwarz-Afrika, held at the Kunsthaus, Zurich, in 1971.

The mask [Acc. No. 2015.445] is currently on display in Gallery 352 of the MET's galleries on Fifth Avenue.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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