Ukara Cloth, Members of the Ezillio Community,  Cotton and indigo dye, Collection of Toby and Barry Hecht 

Nsibidi is a written script or language consisting of a forever-expanding lexicon of pictorial and abstract line images that are both displayed and used in performance by the social elite. From the Cross River region bordering Nigeria and Cameroon, the nsibidi language falls within the privileged domain of men’s secret governing organizations known as the Ekpe (or Leopard Society). Archaeological remains of ceramic sculptures, vessels, and headrests bearing nsibidi-like patterns suggest that this ritualized visual language goes back at least one thousand years. Nsibidi is expressed in male performances, played out through a series of gestures and movements that only the initiated can understand. The ukara cloth on display here presents a small portion of nsibidi’s larger lexicon. The pictographs are organized in rows, as is typical, but are not read in any particular sequence. Instead, each refers to a particular meaning associated with power, status, and social relations within Ekpe contexts. One of the older, often repeated nsibidi signs consists of intersecting half circles that represent ideas of love and amicable companionship. When not overlapping, the two half circles mean just the opposite, a social rift, divorce, or conflict. Other nsibidi designs refer to Ekpe social spaces, and still others the material culture associated with membership in these organizations, including palm fronds, staffs of office, and metal gongs. There are also images of animals, whose behaviors and associative powers are used by Ekpe members to learn life skills and exert their authority. However, only in the deeper meanings of these motifs, known strictly to Ekpe members, is nsibidi fully understood.

Lisa Aronson

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