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Helmet Mask, Sawfish (oki) (work of art)

Artwork Info

Early to mid-20th century
Unknown Niger River Delta Region artist (Nigerian)
24 1/2 x 18 3/4 x 89 3/8 inches (62.2 x 47.6 x 227 centimeters)


Purchased with funds from various donors, by exchange

Object Number

Key Ideas about this Work of Art

  • This helmet mask, or water-spirit headdress, is designed to be worn on top of a person’s head like a hat. It is long and horizontal, with fins sticking up from the top, sides, and tail, and rows of spikes sticking out from each side of a long snout. It is pale in color, with dark edges along the fins and around the mirrored eyes.
  • Sawfish can be found (but are considered rare) in the Niger River Delta region of Nigeria. A mask like this one is important to the people of this community, where the sawfish is believed to bring good harvests through its connection to the river. Many African rituals are connected to animals.
  • When a masquerade dancer wears the sawfish helmet mask and costume, he embodies the spirit of the sawfish. The dancer himself is no longer considered to be present; the being has all of the power and characteristics of the sawfish. 

Learn More

Horizontal water-spirit headdresses in the forms of sawfish, sharks, and other aquatic predators probably originated among the Ijo peoples who are fishermen in the coastal delta region of the Niger River. They held (and continue to hold) annual festivals honoring the water spirits, to ensure good harvests of fish and food crops in the coming year. Neighboring river communities, including the Abua, Ekpeya, and Igbo, adopted this yearly tradition of performing colorful masquerade ceremonies. One eyewitness account of an Ijo community tells of a sawfish headdress worn by a young man who was brought to the village in a canoe. He then danced on land as a sawfish, and masqueraders representing fishermen pretended to “hunt” him.

Makers of water-spirit masks such as this one used carpentry techniques in which the fins, teeth, and other components of the whole were carved separately and then attached. Mirrors (obtained by trade with outsiders) were used for the eyes and to decorate the tail of the sawfish.

tags: wood, function, ceremony, community, celebration



Additional Resources

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Resources for Students:


  • A wooden headdress in the shape of a sawfish.

    Helmet Mask, Sawfish (oki)

  • A wooden headdress in the shape of a sawfish.

    Helmet Mask, Sawfish (oki)

  • A wooden headdress in the shape of a sawfish.

    Helmet Mask, Sawfish (oki)