Pangolin Headdress (Egbukere society) / Pangolin Headdress, 1925–1950
Wood, paint, metal, cloth, rope, and nail
9 × 41 1/2 × 13 in. (22.8 × 105.4 × 33 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Baroid Corporation in honor of its loyal Nigerian employees at "One Great Night in November, 1990"
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
- DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence
Making Papier-Mâché Masks
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Research the function of works of art in African societies.
• Explore symbolism in African art.
• Create papier-mâché masks of animals with symbolic meaning for the students.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Pronounce Ekpeye: Eck’-peh-yeh
The pangolin, also called a scaly anteater, is a mammal native to Asia and Africa, is an anteater, but covered with hard sales. When threatened, pangolins roll themselves into a ball with their scales outside for protection. This headdress, carved to resemble a pangolin, was worn by an Ekpeye man during an annual three-day celebration of feasting and dancing.
Southeastern Nigeria is one of the most important art-producing areas of Africa. This sculpture exhibits a careful observation of nature, combined with an interest in the pattern formed by the rows of carved scales.
Though large in size, the headdress was carved from lightweight wood and is hollowed out to make it even lighter and easier to wear. Each of the pangolin’s scales and long front claws is carved individually and attached with pegs.
Headdresses like this one are made by members of the Egbukere society, the primary men’s association of the Ekpeye people. The association’s major celebration each year is a three-day event during the dry season that features feasting and vigorous dancing wearing large headdresses. Because the pangolin resembles both a reptile and a mammal, the Ekpeye regard it as a special creature existing in two separate worlds and as a symbol of transformation. The Ekpeye regard the blacksmith as holding a similar place among humans: he magically transforms earth (iron ore) into metal (iron). Thus, the pangolin is the blacksmith of the animal world. For additional information about masks from other cultures, see the Bamileke Elephant Mask.
Describe the textures, shapes and material in this artwork. Do you think it is hard or soft? Heavy or light?
Discuss symmetry and variety in this work. Which concept is more prevalent?
Is there movement in this work? Describe which elements of the sculpture suggest movement.
This sculpture exhibits a careful observation of nature, combined with an interest in pattern. Can you describe the different shapes and patterns?
How do you think this object was used?
What colors are used? What associations do you have with these colors?
What animal is rendered here? Is it realistic?
The animal is a pangolin. What is its habitats and behavior? Why do you think the pangolin was chosen?
The pangolin, also called a scaly anteater, is a mammal native to Asia and Africa. When threatened, pangolins roll themselves into a ball with their scales outside for protection. What do you think this animal was a symbol of? Do you think this sculpture is functional, decorative or both?
The Egbukere society, a group amongst the Ekpeye people, consider the pangolin as a symbol of transformation: as it resembles both a reptile and a mammal, it is regarded as a special creature existing in two separate worlds. How do you think the sculpture was used in the everyday life of the Egbukere?
The artwork is a headdress, used by the Ekpeye people during an annual three-day celebration of feasting and dancing. What does this ritual reveal about the society? What does it tell you about the importance of art in everyday life? Compare and contrast the ways in which this society uses art with the place of art in your own world.
• Make a list of animals native to Africa. Research their physical and behavioral characteristics.
• Have students select an animal that has qualities with which they identify. Sketch the animals.
• Demonstrate the papier-mâché method of making masks. Have students construct and paint the papier-mâché masks representing their animal.
(see Art Lessons: Making Papier Mâché Masks)
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.