Over two million Ibibio live in Nigeria, between the Delta and the Cross River. There are western Anang Ibibio and southern Eket Ibibio. The main economic staple in the region is the palm tree, the oil of which is extracted and sold to external markets. The Ibibio traditionally cultivate yams, plantains and maize. Ekpo is the Ibibio word for “ancestor,” as well as the name of the principal masking society, its masks, and the dances that commemorate the deceased. The members of the ekpo society play a political, legislative, judiciary, and religious role in the village. It is a graded association in charge of the ancestor cult and includes two types of masks: the first, the idiok, is ugly and evokes wandering spirits, as compared to the mfon, which is handsome and represents spirits who have reached paradise. White- and yellow-faced masks, mfon come out during daytime burial festivities honoring the recent dead, and also at annual agricultural festivals. Their dances are slow and graceful, with costumes made of many bright-colored cloths. Considered good and beautiful, mfon masks embody the souls of people whose lives on earth were productive and morally unblemished. These are not named ancestors, but rather the collective community of souls whose positive influence is welcome among the living. During the ceremony, young people personify the spirits, who have momentarily returned to the world of living. The idiok black masks, are often of naturalistic appearance and with movable jaws. They represent corrupt, amoral, ugly, and evil souls sentenced at death to perpetual ghosthood. They appear only at night, well after the pretty masks have retired. Costumed in unruly hanks of black-dyed raffia, they dance erratically, at times with deliberately wild movements to inspire terror in those they encounter. Many dark Ibibio masks have distorted facial features that are interpreted as advanced states of disfiguring tropical diseases.

For its part, the ekon society, whose authority stems from sculpted figures in the sanctuaries, exercises social control over the community. It presents the public with the marionette show during festivities that take place every seven years; music and dance are linked with a theatrical play. The statues of the Ibibio have bulbous forms, open mouth, teeth showing. Sometimes the arms are separated and nailed to the body; some sitting or standing figures with outstretched arms are used as marionettes in plays. The figures are mostly bearded, three to four feet high, and are so individual as to suggest portraiture, despite their schematic style.

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