News

November 21, 2015

Okafor unravels the mystery of Ikeji Mask performance

Okafor unravels the mystery of Ikeji Mask performance

Ikeji Festival Theater of Aro and Diaspora: Gender, Mask and Communication; Chinyere G. Okafor; University of Lagos Press and Bookshop Ltd, Lagos, Nigeria; 2015;PP. 406

By  Japhet Alakam

The Ikeji Festival is one of the  biggest festival of the Aros of the south Eastern Nigeria. It is an annual festival of thanksgiving, merriment and propitiation, which comes up either in the month of March or April every year. The festival is very rich, in both historical and cultural festivities, filled with scintillating performances from masquerades, memorable sights, comic acts and magical dances from different dance groups.

Ikeji Festival Theater of Aro and Diaspora: Gender, Mask and Communication;  Chinyere G. Okafor; University of Lagos Press and Bookshop Ltd, Lagos, Nigeria; 2015;PP. 406

Ikeji Festival Theater of Aro and Diaspora: Gender, Mask and Communication; Chinyere G. Okafor; University of Lagos Press and Bookshop Ltd, Lagos, Nigeria; 2015;PP. 406

Apart from the meriment and dancing, many things are involved in the organisation and celebration of the festival proper. What are the features of this festival, who are the people that take part in it, why is  it shrouded in secrecy, what is the role of women in this great festival etc. These and other topical questions are some of the issues that Chinyere G. Okafor, a full professor of English and Women’s Studies at Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas, USA uncovered in her book, Ikeji Festival Theater of Aro and Diaspora: Gender, Mask and Communication.

The 406 pages research book published by University of Lagos Press and Bookshop Ltd is an eloborate and extensive study that restores common humanity because it has its roots in mythic implications. It is indeed a study of the social and basic origins of Aro mask theater since it is the study of the ritualistic figure of Ikeji mask figure in its various manisfestations.

It can be described as a re-enactment of the universal folkloric theme of exile (decay, death) and return (revival, resurrection),  which are universal symbols for local motifs and archetypes that the various mask figures represent. The book which is divided into 14 chapters, is a work of considerable volume that took the author to many places.

Employing the art of a skilled story teller, delivered in simple language, the author through the chapters, highlights the background and origins of Ikeji mask performance in Arochukwu, its development and migration to other areas in pre-colonial times,presentation of selected festival plays in the original Aro home land and some Aro Diaspora locations, as well as the place of post  colonialism and Christianity. The patriarchical community and social cosmos that influence the mask theater, its union with ritual, performance techniques, and other aspects that facilitate appreciation of “inscrutable wonder” of traditional communities are also analyzed.

One special feature of mask performances is that it usually operate in secret cults and their productions are often shrouded in mystery, so the author who is a woman ventures into the unknown to unravel the mystery of the Ikeji mask performance by outlining the segments that come together to create the mask mask mystique, and also discuss women and gender angles that help to appreciate the cultural communication of  of masculinity and femininity  in Arochukwu and Aro diaspora.

The gender engagement makes the diligent work so fascinating.For example in chapter 8, entitled Female Transition and Female Masks, the author takes the reader to some transition experiences that help to appreciate what it means to be a woman in the tradition, and also focuses on two female mask performances which portray society’s expectation of women.

Another important aspect of the book is that it emphasized the importance of the Ikeji festival as a community affair in which men, women and children play their parts.

According to Professor Charles E. Nnolim, of the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, “the book is a thoroughly and painstakingly researched interdisciplinary endeavor that straddles the  fields of history, myth, anthropology, drama, theater, religion, and literature with an underlying gender engagement. It is comprehensively conceived and masterfully concluded.”

It is a ritual cum artictic elaboration of the people’s victory while the drama is a dramatic enactment of the victory. For many who are interested in the study of African festival theater in general, Igbo and Nigerian traditional drama, this book is a must. I recommend it to all.