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
- DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence
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.
• Develop vocabulary of descriptive words.
• Identify and use alliteration.
• Develop and illustrate an alliterative animal alphabet book.
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 that is 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.
- Describe the textures, shapes, and materials in this artwork. Do you think it would be hard or soft to the touch? Heavy or light to wear?
- Discuss symmetry and variety in this work. Which concept is more prevalent?
- Which elements of the headdress suggest movement?
- How would you describe the use of shape and patterning in this headdress? How might these reflect nature?
- Is the object’s use clear from careful observation? Are there any signs that point to its use as a headdress during important celebrations?
- Look closely at the way the animal is rendered. What can you guess about the animal, just from looking at this headdress? What characteristics has the artist emphasized?
- Imagine how this headdress might have been worn by a dancer. How might it have transformed them? What effect would this performance have on spectators?
- How has the artist captured and emphasized the defining aspects of the pangolin?
- Keeping in mind the behaviors and cultural meaning of the pangolin in Ekpeye life, why do you think that the pangolin was chosen for this headdress? What symbolism might it have?
- How might this object change if it were created out of a different material? For example, pangolins were considered the “blacksmiths” of the animal world, agents of transformation and change just like human blacksmiths, who transform ore into metal iron. Why would the artist not have made this headdress out of iron? What effect does the wood and paint have on the overall object?
- Consider this object’s symbolism, as well as its use in public celebrations. Would you say that this object is functional, decorative, or both?
- What does this headdress tell you about the importance of art in everyday life in Ekpeye society? How does this compare and contrast to the role of art in your own society?
This headdress is, in many ways, a celebration of the particular character of the pangolin. You can use this work of art as a starting point for building vocabulary and practicing alliteration—all by making a collaborative book of animal alliterations.
Start with the pangolin. After discussing this headdress, the class can brainstorm adjectives that describe the animal. How many of those adjectives are alliterative? Which alliteration is the most effective descriptor? Guide the class to elect their favorite alliteration.
To continue this exercise, the class—in groups or individually—can brainstorm animals and alliterations for each letter of the alphabet. For instance, a group or student assigned to the letter Z might write “zany zebra”. Once all letters of the alphabet are represented with an animal alliteration, students can illustrate each letter and create a book out of their illustrations.
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.