The Kalabari Ijaw (E-jaw) peoples live on the coastal delta of the Niger River in Nigeria. The Kalabari are related by language and culture to a larger group called the Ijaw, but maintain a distinct culture. Their major industries are fishing and trading, and their religion and art reflects the importance of their water environment to their livelihood. Because ancestors remain very active in community and family affairs, the Kalabari treat them with great respect. They honor the spirits of their most important ancestors by constructing elaborate memorial screens for them.
ORGANIZATION OF THE KALABARI
Early Kalabari society consisted of small village communities with complex family lineage groups of varying sizes. Members of a lineage lived together as a land-holding unit controlled by an elected head or chief. Late in the 15th century the Kalabari economy became largely dependent on trade with Europeans and their social structure changed considerably. Trading housesÑcorporations involved in both export and importÑreplaced the traditional lineage groups. These trading houses consisted of an elected head and a membership comprising men and women of different origins who were adopted into the lineage as sons and daughters. Both kinship and economic interests bound the members of a trading house to one another. Many of the trading houses acquired great wealth and economic power, and the successful house heads were highly revered for their accomplishments.
In the traditional Kalabari belief system, the living-dead, or ancestors, are particularly important spirits who have a great influence over the daily lives of the living. The Kalabari attend to the needs of these ancestor spirits, known as duein, in order to assure that the spirits will continue to bring good to the family and community. When a particularly important member of a trading house dies, extra great care is taken to ensure its well-being. Regularly in the past and occasionally today, relatives commission an artist to produce an elaborate memorial screen in order to provide the duein with a special and secure resting place.
A memorial screen produced for an important member of a trading house is called a duein fubara (doo-en fo-bah-rah) or ":forehead of the dead.": For the Kalabari, an individual's immortal spirit or life force rests in the forehead, or fubara, during the person's lifetime.1 When the person dies the spirit leaves the body in search of another resting place. Memorial screens provide that place for the most important ancestor spirits; hence, their nameÑ":foreheads of the dead.": By giving the duein a place to rest, the members of a house are not only able to revere it, but also, to some degree, to control it.
Traditionally, a screen was constructed from one to several years after the death of the person it represents. When completed, the screen was placed in an inner room of the trading house, behind an altar of three mud pillars where offerings were regularly made to the deceased spirit. Following elaborate consecration and installation rituals, the head of the deceased's household brought food and drink to the altar every eight days.
DESCRIPTION AND STYLE
Like other memorial screens made during the 19th century, this one is made of wood and raffia and features three figures carved from odumdum wood, chosen because of its allegorical association with orderly human social life. The construction of memorial screens is typical of Kalabari art. The heads, bodies, appendages, and accessories are individually carved and then assembled with nails, raffia, staples, and pegs, in relief against the backdrop of a rigidly framed wicker screen. This type of assembled relief construction produces a visual effect quite different from freestanding three-dimensional sculptures.
The large central figure represents the leading Kalabari citizen to whom the screen pays homage. His large size emphasizes his importance relative to the two smaller flanking figures, who probably represent his kinsmen. The artist does not represent the leader through individualized features as in a portrait, but rather by the accessories that he wears and holds. This man wears an Ekine society headdress of the Alagbamasquerade which indicates his prestige.2 The objects he and his followers once held were small carved attributes of leadership such as a canoe paddle, a tusk, a staff, a fan, or a fly whisk. The smaller figures wear either knitted caps or special Sansun hats.3 Originally they all probably wore cloth skirts around their waists. Thepegs above the frame probably supported a row of small heads that symbolized the great numbers of dependents this leader had. The letters DP on the top and sides of this frame may identify the house of the deceased as the Don Pedro house, but this cannot be proven with certainty.
Typical of Kalabari art, the figures are abstract, symmetrical, and frontal. The artist reduces the various anatomical features to stylized geometric components: large ovoid heads, eyes, and mouths; flat, rectangular torsos; and rigid outstretched arms and bent legs. The tongue-shaped brown forms may represent their chests or their shoulder blades. The dotted lines painted down their torsos represent the backbone, and reinforce the human quality of the ancestors who continue to be personally involved with their descendants.
THE FATE OF MEMORIAL SCREENS
By the end of the 19th century, Christianity was firmly rooted in the Niger Delta. Missionaries provided many Kalabari people the education they desired to be successful in their rapidly changing environment, but had little to offer others. Then a Kalabari man who called himself Elijah II gathered a large group of followers. He ordered them to destroy all of their traditional religious objects including their memorial screens in order to rid themselves of their old religion. Many objects were destroyed but many others were preserved by houses that refused to comply with his demands. Percy Amaury Talbot, a British colonial officer and ethnographer gathered hundreds of objects for preservation, including eleven memorial screens. This screen is one of those collected by Talbot.
For decades scholars believed that screens were no longer being made by the Kalabari because they were kept so secret. In fact, screens are still being constructed for a few important leaders. Because of the exorbitant cost of producing these screens, only a few are made. A single pillar of wood or a white cloth is more typically placed behind the standard altar of three clay pillars where screens were traditionally placed.
Barley, Nigel, Foreheads of the Dead: An Anthropological View of Kalabari Ancestral Screens, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.
Bradbury, Ellen and Martha Anderson, ":Ijo Duein Fubara or Ancestor Screen,": The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, 1974, pp. 67-73.
Oelmann, Albin Benney, ":Nduen Fobara,": African Arts, February 1979, pp. 36-43.
Use on the following tours:
- Highlights of the Collection
- Visual Elements
- African Art
- People and Places
Compare the construction and format of the screen to a three-dimensional in-the-round African figure, such as:
- the Senufo Standing Figure
- the Mitsogo figures
Compare this construction to later European assemblages such as Marisol's Cocktail Party
to discuss the similarities as well as the differences.
Compare this ancestral memorial to other works honoring the dead, such as:
- the New Ireland Malagan Pole
- the False Door
- the Chinese Sarcophagus
Find other works in which a particular compositional format is used to support the values or emotions represented by the image. For example:
- the Costa
- the Castiglione
- the Stella
- the False Door
- the Tibetan Mandala or the Taima Mandala
The large figure on the screen represents the ancestral head of the trading house. Compare this abstract ":portrait": of power to other portraits in our collection, such as:
- Portrait of a Burgomaster, Jacobus Trip
- Sir John Langston
- Duo Lo
On a writing tour, write a praise poem to the head of the trading house represented on this screen. See pages 134-136 of Volume I.
- The concept of a spirit force resting in the person's forehead can be thought of in the same non-literal way that love is often considered to rest in one's heart.
- The Ekine Society is a prestigious masquerade society that traditionally played a significant role in the social organization of the Kalabari. Particular trading houses owned the rights to certain masquerade performances and headpieces. The rights to these performances were bought and traded and the masquerades were an important means of identity for individuals and houses.
- Barley, p. 74. Sansun hats, made of bamboo and cloth, are today the prerogative of powerful priests.