Sketches from the British Museum 2: The African Dance Masks

It was 11.30 am by the time I arrived at the British Museum on Saturday and by then the museum was busy. So instead of wandering about and fighting with the crowds, I went to the Africa Galleries and very luckily found a bench, opposite this magnificent wooden crocodile. It is part of a beautifully lit display of dance masks, some of them sharks, their cast shadows as descriptive as the objects themselves.


They are labelled as being “19th Century from the Abua or Ekpehia Igbo people in Nigeria

The masks are huge. I searched for some photographs to understand more about how they were worn and found these wonderful images from the Riverine Igbo region (Ekpafia, Abua, Ekpeya) taken in the 1930’s by Gwilym Iwan Jones a Welsh photographer and anthropologist. You can see more in his archives here.

abua2      ekpafia1


I then swivelled round on my bench to sketch a few more masks from the case behind me.


Everything about these masks interests me, from their construction to their use and symbolism. Some of the materials are beads, some incorporate metals, together with natural fibres, wood and found objects.
There is a delightful short video on the British Museum website of children talking about the masks. see it here. I also went back to look at the little stucco Silk Road horse; this time I sketched the figure next to him.


And made another quick sketch of the big beautiful glazed ceramic tomb horses with their groom.

horses-and-groom A5 sketchbook and pen.

I was interested in how both images are changed by the addition of the figures, even though the figures are not attached. In the second one  the “groom’s” hands look as though they would be holding a rope or reins of some sort but the horses have no halters. There is just an invisible tension between them.
I am working on these images over on Beautiful Beasts this week see “Silk Road Horses from the British Museum”.