Pangolin Headdress (Egbukere society) / Pangolin Headdress, 1925–1950
Ekpeye peoples
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

  • UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy
  • COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support

Writing Mask Poems

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.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Generate descriptive words about works of art, the animals, and the emotions they evoke.

•  Use point of view in writing poetry




Language Arts


Understand Bias


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?


  • The animal is a pangolin. What are 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.


•  Teach the concept of “mask” poetry.  In mask poetry, the poet puts on a mask (figuratively), becomes another person or thing, and speaks from that viewpoint, showing how the person or thing might think, feel, or act.

•  Have students generate lists of adverbs, adjectives, and descriptive phrases for the masks students made in the art activity, and for the animals portrayed.

•  Write mask poems from the point of view of the animals portrayed in the students’ masks.

•  Have students dramatize the poems wearing the masks.  If possible, videotape the dramatizations. 

Subject Matter Connection

A student who is accomplished in language arts needs to feel liberated to express himself or herself freely. Much of literature analysis is a “gray area” open to various interpretations; what matters is that students have the ability to overcome the fear of that ambiguity and the fear of failure so that they can critically evaluate works of literature in depth. Similarly, various literature genres–such as fantasy or science fiction–ask readers to stretch basic beliefs. By analyzing Pangolin Headdress, students can practice analysis where more than one answer could be accurate based on existing prior knowledge regarding this work.

Resources Available to Order

The Art-To-Go lending library features materials that may easily be integrated across the K–12 curriculum. Resources include DVDs, music CDs, children’s books, study guides, poster sets, and collection-based interpretive materials produced by the KFEC. Educators, community leaders, and docents from throughout Texas are welcome to borrow Art-To-Go resources. To place your order, search the online catalogue and add the selected items to your basket. After you have reviewed your basket, submit the order electronically.

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.