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Arts and Crafts

Author: nick on 24-08-2013, 21:00, views: 7 087


Women's carrying basket, akpan, with palm fruit bunchesWomen's carrying basket, akpan, with palm fruit bunchesThe traditional way of life embraced a galaxy of artistic expressions - story telling, poetry and dance-drama, wood and clay sculpture, puppetry, mask-making, masquerades, mural and body painting, etc., evolved in the complex socio-political, religious and economic pattern of community existence. As a rule, traditional art forms were highly functional and governed by strict aesthetic and deeply spiritual canons. They were used as effective means of social interaction and control and a vehicle for cultural transmission of traditional norms, values and experiences.

Craft work is practised seasonally: carrying baskets for farms produce are made at harvest time; climbing ropes (ikpo) for cutting palm fruits - when the palm fruits are about to get ripe; roofing mats and fibre string (tie-tie) - just before the rainy season.1 Farmers, palm-wine tappers and fishermen produce their simple equipment or purchase the more-specialised one at the area markets at Ete, Ikot Abasi, Essene, Ukam, etc. Professional pottery, woodwork, blacksmithing and weaving items are still produced through the group efforts of specialised families, working on commission or for immediate market sale.


Abang mbre, musical pot or pot-drum used in uta, ebre and other traditional plays and dances, and in church musical accompanimentAbang mbre, musical pot or pot-drum used in uta, ebre and other traditional plays and dances, and in church musical accompanimentUntil recently, the well known area pottery centre at Iman turned out a variety of water storage (abang itie), paJmwine (abang ukot), and cooking pots (ako afere), elaborate ceremonial pots (abang isong), grinding, mixing and soup bowls (ukop oko/usan efere), small ritual bowls (usan idem), musical pots (abang mbre), perforated round pots for drying crayfish and vessels of all kinds, sizes and shape. Ikot Ukpo Inua at Ibekwe was also known for making side-hole musical pots (abang mbre and abang uta.).2


The introduction of metal pots, which made boiling much faster, opened the way for different purpose iron pots and the cooking tripods. For centuries, local blacksmiths have reworked imported copper and iron bars, rods and sheets into staples, anklets and coiled eggings (owok). Small furnaces in the traditional blacksmiths' compounds still turn out metal utensils, buckets, iron tripods, knives, blades, matchets and hoes, traps and lamp stands, iron beds, musical gongs and rattles, spears, boxes and chairs. Metal sheets and welding materials previously obtained at the Opobo port now come from Aba market. Small children operate the traditional bellows connected with a wide clay pipe to the shallow fireplace at the Owok Ebio compound in Essene, which is believed to have learnt
hand-forging through association with Nkwerre (Igbo) artisans. A member of this family as a well-known Lagos goldsmith during the 1960s-1970s.


Copper manilla at the Otoyo ancestral shrine at Amangbauji (Courtesy: Chief C J John, 1996)Copper manilla at the Otoyo ancestral shrine at Amangbauji (Courtesy: Chief C J John, 1996)Brass-cast masks, figures and staff heads of human and animal form have been found on shrines throughout Ibibioland, though no metal smelting tradition has been recorded in the area. Pagan brass sculptures were reportedly destroyed or thrown into the Essene creeks during the evangelization crusades early in the century. Whether these objects were produced locally, or were ordered through the overseas trade exchange, as was the practice on the coast, is yet to be ascertained.3

Mat weaving at Ikot Abasi. Source: LG Council photo archivesMat weaving at Ikot Abasi. Source: LG Council photo archivesRoofing, ceiling, sleeping and fence mats and plaited screens (nkanya, iboto, itembok) are made in every Ikot Abasi settlement from palm tree leaves. Decorative sleeping mats from Edem Aya and cane work - tables, chairs, seats, baby cots, cupboards and baskets of various designs and purpose (akpan, ikat, etc.) - from the Anaang areas are sold at the local markets. A local cane-chair industry was started in 1925, when a chair cost the equivalent of 10 Kobo, while baskets were made at Minya and piassava at Ukam (Wauton, 1925; Webber, 1927). The Eastern Obolo fishermen are good at weaving fishing baskets and building pole enclosures in the coastal shoals.

The Ibibio produce a variety of calabash items: musical horns (oduk uta), containers for palmwine (ikim ukot), water, palm oil or food (ikim eto), drinking cups (ukpok), spoons (ikpang efere) and medicine bottles and funnels (okop, asang ukebe). Palm leaves, fibres, raffia and thread were used for weaving raffia and cotton cloth strips, bags, netting, screenings and the traditional odung mboppo screens. Village children used to make sandals from piassava with wooden or rubber soles.


Traditional Nwommo designs depicting symbolic scenes of the deceased life and achievementsTraditional Nwommo designs depicting symbolic scenes of the deceased life and achievementsThe famous Ibibio raffia-and-cotton weave (mkpin) and shoulder towel-cloth (ekpang), are now as rare as the old prestigious popo (Opobo) cloth, but loom weaving and fashion design are now taught at the Ikot Abasi Women Training Centre. Raffia products from the Anaang workshops are also hawked at the Ete market, or displayed at the new souvenir/craft shops, run by local, Yoruba and Hausa traders.


The beautifully patterned applique work on the prestigious nwommo cloth and chiefs', societies' or church banners and flags, so popular in the past, are now replaced with less painstaking machine embroidery and poster-paint prints.


Traditional hair plaiting remains popular for its practicality, versatility and beauty. The old patterns, which indicated the age-grade, marital status and social level of the wearer (i. e., maiden, married, pregnant, having first child, post-menopause, widowed) are now replaced by current fashions - periwinkle, weave-on, long braids, Samson etc.


Ibibio maiden's mkpuk hairstyleIbibio maiden's mkpuk hairstyleTraditional symbolism has survived, reflected in the floral and zoomorphic designs on walls, memorial cloths, chieftaincy paraphernalia and body decoration.4


Clay, leaves, roots and fruits, ground and mixed in appropriate proportions, provide pastes of red, white, brown, black, green or yellow pigments used on walls, cloth, wood, raffia, etc., and in skin markings on the face, limbs and body. Some of the used substances have a lasting effect (from a few months to a few years) and high cosmetic value for the preservation of smooth, youthful and beautiful skin. They are also associated with magic.5 The odung and okukin patterns are drawn with bamboo or chewing sticks, one on top of the other - the black graphic design of the first superimposed on the raised relief patterns of the second, while the famous nki tattoo is part of the symbolic sign and gesture communication art of the Eastern Obolo. The Christianity-induced covering of the body has made body painting (which in the past enhanced the appearance and communicated messages) obsolete, since the designs were hidden by the clothing. Okukin skin painting is as rare today as the mboppo seclusion, with which it is associated.


Eastern Obolo skin decorative motifsEastern Obolo skin decorative motifsSymbolic designs were also cut for spiritual protection on the prows and paddles of the dug-out canoes, which were carved out from the huge swamp trees near the Essene waterside, Ukan and Akama (Eastern Obolo). Wooden canoes are still made at Akama and fitted with modern outboard engines.

The Anaang in Opobo Division were the recognised master carvers of numerous ceremonial masks, religious and ritual statuary, chieftaincy staffs and stools, household and personal items and musical instruments, including drums, gongs and xylophones.


The statuary displayed emphasis on spiritually important features - disproportionately big heads, bulging eyes, twisted nose, thick lips and large hands. The face, chest and genital areas, carved in cylindrical, conical and inverted-plain forms, were given special geometric treatment. Detachable limbs and moveable jaws enhanced their value in ritual and ventriloquistic performances.


Commissioned at Opobo, wooden bust of Mary Kingsley, a Victorian traveller, who chided the colonial powers for abolishing political systems they did not understand (Courtesy: NM, Calabar)Commissioned at Opobo, wooden bust of Mary Kingsley, a Victorian traveller, who chided the colonial powers for abolishing political systems they did not understand (Courtesy: NM, Calabar)

The naturalistic style of the 1940s Opobo carver was much admired. Among the officially commissioned works, were the bust of the District Commissioner Ross-Brown, the traveller Mary Kingsley and a wooden copy of a celebrated Ife bronze head.

The bold, dramatic Ekpo mask carving, enhanced by its strong black colour and complimentary fibre covering, still inspires awe, fear and mystery. Smaller, beautiful Ekong masks in gay colours and fanned feather superstructure bring hope, joy and cheer to the spectators. Ingenuity, great imagination and joyous creativity are invested in the production of the fantastic masquerade costumes for the grand annual lerformances.
Performing arts - inter-connected folklore, dance and drama - are merged into the life-fibre of Ikot Abasi communities.


Public-speaking sessions of elders at communal meetings and moonlight entertainment during the slack periods of farm work, when general relaxation, courtship, religious worship and tending to cultural traditions take place, are highly evolved forms of dramatisation. They include instructive and philosophical statements) (nke), proverbs story-telling (ntang), poetry (uto) and riddles (uto ndok), supported by lively audience participation. Proverb-speaking is an art and the artistic prerogative of the community elders who use it to instruct, warn, interpret or justify a judgement. It involves a basic general concept and a series of interpretations, using more proverbs, to narrow down the meaning to the desired conclusion, which often is totally inconceivable from the initial statement without the intermediary stages. Oral tradition vividly reflects the dramatic adaptation of the people to a complex and constantly changing environment under the strong influence or strange intrusive forces, in which the proverbial character of the tortoise - a villain, trickster and, also, a sage - teaches the art of survival.6


Uta Edem Aya in performance. Source: Local Government Council photo archiveUta Edem Aya in performance. Source: Local Government Council photo archiveEqually unique is the Ibibio musical tradition, expressed by the characteristic use of a tritonic scale (in which the text takes preference to the repetitive melody), yodelling, polymeric beat (different time beats for music and song) and iambic rhythm (signals of a short beat, followed by a long one). The call and response pattern in a series of variations and repetition and the use of several parallel musical parts for the typical musical instruments - xylophone (ikon eto), twin gong (nkwong, akangkang), rattle (ikpat mbre, nsak), various drums (ibit, obodom, ikom iba okom), and the horn orchestra (oduk uta), weave a unique musical pattern, reflective of the colourful multi-faceted human society, bound together by the family and clan unity.7


The accompanying songs publicise knowledge, ideas, opinions and information, individual and communal aspirations, achievements or tragedies. They are a vital part of living - working on the farm or paddling on the river, preparing ingredients for the evening meal or group gatherings. Church meetings and social events are never devoid of singing.


The traditional uta (gourd horn) orchestra is made of four uta horns named after a mother and her three sons: Eka Uta, Akpan Uta, Udo Uta and Etukudo Uta, supported by various drums, and signifies the traditional family unity. (Akpabot, 1994)

Nwommo memorial shrine at Ikot Akpaden's crossroad, July 1996Nwommo memorial shrine at Ikot Akpaden's crossroad, July 1996Ekong Atime Nwa masquerade at the Usoro Ekpo annual festival, Essene, December 1979. Courtesy: C. NdodoEkong Atime Nwa masquerade at the Usoro Ekpo annual festival, Essene, December 1979. Courtesy: C. NdodoThroughout history, the popular plays (mbre) have retained their magnetism as great crowd-pullers through their informal and rich combination of colour, movement, sound and melody. Despite the mitigating influence of modernity and neglect, the traditional flavour, colourful vitality, frank realism and deep symbolism of the people's artistic expression shine through in each performance.


Dance movements are tantalising, invigorating and deliberately choreographed to develop needed muscle skills and to pass knowledge of historical experiences, secret Symbolism and economic activities. Observing the drum-leader as he directs the thrilling musical recitals of his group - the sound of the numerous drums, beaten together, thundering against forest and sky, dictating and directing the steps of the agile dancers, or calling out the masquerades, one by one, with their special drum-calls - is an emotionally fulfilling experience.8


So is the Ikot Abasi men's oyo play, which used to be assiduously practised and regularly performed during the annual end-of-year festivities. Solemnly dressed in white long-sleeved shirt and long tapering loin-cloth, with a handkerchief tied round the neck and the customary towel-cloth hung over the shoulder, each dancer proudly raised his walking stick, tied with white kerchief, and danced to the sound of numerous drums (obodom, ibit, ntakrok), in the specially erected in the village square circular enclosure, over-hung with colourful buntings. The ete mbre or play captain led the dance and controlled the drummers,

dictating different steps and styles to the dancers. Later, he also shared the proceeds.


Ikot Abasi: Paramount Ruler (left) and Clan heads, 1990Ikot Abasi: Paramount Ruler (left) and Clan heads, 1990Ikot Abasi women had their own dances, which were accompanied with songs and drumming. The dancers wore white blouses and uniform wrappers as identification of the group and held a white handkerchief in each hand. The Sierra Leonean, Ghanaian, Yoruba and Opobo Town groups organised their own annual festivals and colourful dances, and thereby added to the curious mixture of European, West African and local customs which made up the mid-century social fabric of the township.


Christianity, economic decline and modernisation have gradually reduced these rich traditions to samba-type dancing and chorus singing in the churches, dirty and feather-plastered imitations of the traditional ritual masks and figures offered surreptitiously for sale to visitors, and various types of half-baked masquerades molesting the pedestrians for petty cash. Cement grave-sculptures and fibre-glass statuary have almost completely ousted the dignified wooden sculptures and ritual cloth/wood memorials, just as heavy cement-and-zinc constructions are fast replacing the picturesque light-coloured and light-structured traditional buildings. It is a refreshing surprise to glimpse the ancient painted designs on a clay wall, a traditional portal entrance to a village compound, or a dainty nwommo at a cross-road.


It is even rarer to see a well-maintained ancestral shrine with its array of beautifully sculpted staffs representing the family ancestors. Maybe they will still survive and adapt, as the traditional drumming and dancing, and the colourful Ekong and Ekpo masquerades, which have currently permeated the political scene.9


The most modern artistic development is the colourful cement statues at the big crossroads, sculpted by University of Uyo artists, including Sir Udo Udoma's figure, executed by the well-known sculptor, Ben Ekanem.


Names of Stars

Ibibio Names
Ibibio names always carried a meaning, for instance:

The Ibibio people, versed in ancient knowledge of the universe, have poetic names for the celestial bodies.
Venus is referred to as Nwan ima ntan-ta-offiong - 'the beloved wife-star'.
The Belt of Orion is eto iyak ita -'the stick of three fishes'.
The Aidebaran is unen eka ndito -the mother hen'.
And the Morning Star is just that -Ntan-to-offiong usiere




(in Talbot, 1923: 255)

Akpabio child born to a father in Inam
Akpan first born son
Adiaha first born daughter
Udo second born son
Ufot third born son
Okon born at night
Idorenyin child that was hoped for
Ibritam child born after a visit to the Arochukwu shrine (from Essien, 1995)




1 For detailed discussion on crafts see Udo Ema, (1991).
2 On traditional pottery manufacture etc. see Nicklin (1971, 1973, 1979). Domestic pots and calabash containers with palm oil were sealed for preservation and storage with plantain leaves and clay.
3 Ritual shrine sculptures were obtained in the 19th century from Europe by the Brass, Ekoi/Ejagham and Andoni/Obolo people, who possessed a number of ritual statues and were also known to trade in copper and brass bracelets (Ejituwu, 1981; Nicklin, 1977). Early bronze work has been earlier attributed to a 500 BC Carthaginian trading post in the Upper Cross River (Talbot, 1926, Vol. 1: 182).
4 Most commonly met are the geometric representations of the snake, which is never ill, and the tortoise, which is clever and does not die young.
5 The iduot, red camwood, is reputed to have a smoothening and bleaching effect on the body; white kaolin, (ndom), cools and softens rough skin. Palm kernel oil (mmanyanga), liberally used during the mboppo period, makes the body smooth, soft and supple; white clay (ndom) and yellow camwood (nsei) have ritual and ernatural association; and atido, the mineral eye-brow paint, also, clears the eyes (Umoetuk, 1985).

6 On Ibibio oral tradition see Esen (1982).
7 Akpabot (1994) provides a vivid and entertaining study of Ibibio music and a technical discussion of its merits
8 See a study of Ibibio dance and drama in Inih A. Ebong (1991). Traditional masquerades successfully advertise the political parties during campaign periods and, mcently, Ekpo masquerades have been used successfully to frustrate unpopular political candidates or activities in the area.


Colour symbolism


white peace, unity, spiritualism kaolin/chalk ndom,
red sign of life, fertility and marriage; power, defiance and war red camwood iduot, lumps of red oxide flower blossoms
yellow supernatural affinity, sickness yellow camwood, nsei uto, bark or ginger lily roots
brown (for raised relief body patterns) from odung root or nkong isong plant
green plant life, abundant harvest from awa plant or onion tincture and ndom
black mourning, death, afterworld affinity (for body designs) charcoal and soot, ikong eben leaves or eto okukin plant root
Source: P. & D. Talbot, 1912, 1923, 1926
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Category: Ikot Abasi

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