Masquerades of the Middle Benue
Filmed and documented by UCLA Professor Arnold Rubin in 1965 and 1970

These six Super-8 films were shot by UCLA Professor Arnold Rubin in 1965 and 1970 in several Middle Benue towns. They have been excerpted from unedited footage housed in the Rubin Archive in the Fowler Museum. Although the masquerades were performed with music, the technology did not allow for simultaneous sound recording. These rare films have never before been shown in a public setting.

Vaa-Bong masquerade, Mumuye peoples, Zing (Zinna) town, 1970
Super-8 film, 2 minutes 24 seconds

Initiation into the Vaa-Bong association, from which these sequences derive, lasted three days and took place on the edge of town. The initiates are identified by their bare torsos, shaved heads, and traditional dancing skirts secured at the front with sticks; some of the most senior men sit with their backs supported by monoliths. The masqueraders demonstrate how to perform to the initiates. The horizontal wooden mask head fuses human features with those of the dwarf forest buffalo or bushcow. Each set of initiates will go on to control its own masquerades.

Ikikpo masquerade, Kuteb peoples, Takum town, 1965
Super-8 film, 52 seconds

The masquerade features the female whose male counterpart wears a mask exhibited nearby. Female gender is indicated by the crest surmounting its head, which represents a sculpted hairstyle, by its breasts ornamented with red abrus seeds, and by the way in which it wears its several cloth wrappers.

Kaa Waara, Chamba peoples, Donga town, 1965
Super-8 film, 2 minutes 11 seconds

The Chamba of Donga are immigrants from the east who brought this mask type with them. Like the horizontal Mumuye mask, this is a human-buffalo fusion. Some of the masquerader’s attendants play flutes, another plays with a small horn upon a double iron gong, and the custodian of the masquerader’s tail also controls the masquerade. On display nearby is a mask almost identical to the one seen here, likely to be by the same hand, and collected more than fifty years earlier.

Vaa-Bong masquerade, Mumuye peoples, Pantisawa town, 1970
Super-8 film, 3 minutes 26 seconds

The masquerade in Pantisawa differs in some respects from the one in Zinna. The first of the two masks we see has a pointed beak that represents a fusion of human features with those of a fish-eating bird, and the second is a buffalo-human fusion mask, like those of Zinna, but the masqueraders wear less substantial hibiscus fiber costumes. Led by the masqueraders who carry sticks and switches, a group of initiates descends from the hillside into the deserted streets of the village, which have been vacated by the women and children who take shelter in their homes to avoid seeing or confronting the costumed performers.

Aku masquerade, Jukun peoples, Wukari (the Jukun capital), 1965
Super-8 film, 3 minutes 27 seconds

This male Aku masquerader wears its mask differently from those we have seen so far: instead of a horizontal orientation, it is vertical and works like a face mask. Its cantilevered, almost hunched, appearance is similar to that of some Jukun figure sculptures on view nearby. The mask fuses a human face with stylized buffalo horns that are attached to the end of its long nose. The second of the male masqueraders is joined by its female counterpart, identifiable by its crest. All of these wear prestige cloths, which are loosely identified with the ancestral dead, as well as with the creatures of the wild.

Akuma masquerade, Jukun peoples, Wukari, 1965
Super-8 film, 2 minutes 15 seconds

The first male Akuma mask we see has a bird’s beak; a second male mask has the squarer mouth of the buffalo. Their female counterpart joins the dance toward the end of this clip, and her wild-haired appearance is uncultivated compared to her more refined counterpart in the Aku masquerade. There is a palpable sense that the quivering Akuma masqueraders demand greater control from their custodians than do the more refined Aku couple. All the masqueraders seen in these clips represent extraordinary powers that enter villages and towns bringing with them attributes of death and wildness; all therefore have to be controlled, and by controlling the masqueraders, their custodians suggest their own powers.

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