49 x 23 x 23 inches (124 x 58 x58 cm)
Epa is an ancient category of ancestral commemoration masks that are performed by members of age-grade societies (in which individuals pass through certain stages at specific ages in life) during feasts marking the annual agricultural cycle, or presented during the post-burial rites for titled men. Epa masks typically represent dignitaries, ancestral spirits, gods, and cultural heroes.
The characteristic type of Epa mask is a double-faced helmet mask surmounted by one or more figures. Some are astonishingly elaborate with many figures, and can weigh up to seventy pounds. Each mask is associated with a distinctive dress and style of dance, which may range from slow and powerful to highly energetic. The most important masks are stored in shrines where they are ritually fed to increase their power and efficacy. Over time they become encrusted with sacrificial millet-gruel, feathers, and blood.
Whereas the majority of Epa-related masks are naturalistic in style and almost classic in their refinement, this example has been greatly abstracted, as if to give expression to the brutality of war, the courage and nobility of a great warrior, and the awesome power of Ogún, the Yoruba god of iron, hunting, and war. Ogún is revered for his power to create and destroy. Here he is portrayed as the very image of death. This mask is from the center for the cult of the god Ogún in the Oye Ekiti region in Nigeria.
On his left arm Ogún holds a shield with spikes, and in his right hand a long iron lance. From his chest protrudes an armor breastplate charged with protective talismans and magical substances. Medicine gourds are intertwined in his helmet, and a snake zigzags up his long, braided hair. Ogún's helmet is attached by a long strap that hangs down around his face and connects to his breastplate, giving the impression of a second beard. The steed Ogún sits on is diminutive compared to its large, important rider, but the horse's flaring nostrils and abstracted face transform it into a fearsome supernatural beast.
Text by Michael W. Conner, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008