About This Artwork

Sha or Kulere

Mask, Late 19th century

Wood and rubber with traces of Abrus precatorious seeds
H. 64.8 cm (25 1/2 in.)

Gift of Richard Faletti, the Faletti Family Collection, 2000.319

This strikingly abstract mask is from the Benue River valley of Nigeria’s Central region and was probably made by a Sha or Kulere artist. The mask was once covered with bright red Abrus seeds that were held in place by a mastic of natural rubber; the mask’s pocked surface shows the remains of the rubber backing. Throughout Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, Abrus seeds are used in potent herbal medicines and sometimes in poisons. Thus, when used on a work of art they may have metaphorical significance related to healing or to danger.

Little is known about why this mask was made, though field research by the German scholar Barbara Frank has suggested it may have been used in initiation rituals for one of six age-grade societies. According to Frank, the mask is similar to a Sha mask representing a male spirit called Akirang, which was worn with a fiber costume and which had a female counterpart, Aja, that was represented in performance by a man wearing a netted costume. The Kulere equivalent to Akirang was called Asho, a spirit also associated with human and agricultural fertility. Sha masks representing Akirang and Kulere masks representing Asho are both characterized by a sweeping head crest surmounting a facial plane and by triangular projections along the chin line perhaps representing a beard.

—Permanent Collection Object Description

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Phoenix Art Museum, A Sense of Wonder: African Art from the Faletti Family Collection, Dec. 13, 1997-Feb. 8, 1998, cat. 49; traveled to Chicago, The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, May 14-June 28, 1998, Urbana-Champaign, Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Sept. 18-Nov. 1, 1998, New York, N.Y., The Museum for African Art, Jan. 29-March 28, 1999, Davenport Museum of Art, Apr.18-June 13, 1999, New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University, The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Sept. 12-Nov. 24, 1999, and The Boise Art Museum, Feb. 26-May 7, 2000.

Publication History

Werner Gillon, Collecting African Art (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), pp. 84 (ill.).

Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts, A Sense of Wonder: African Art from the Faletti Family Collection (Phoenix: Phoenix Art Museum, 1997), pp. 22-23, 106; fig. 11; cat. 49 (ill.).

Ownership History

Ralph Nash, London, by 1972; Michel Huguenin, Galerie Majestic, Paris, by 1972; sold to Alan Mann, London, by 1989; sold to Judith Nash, Judith Small Gallery, New York, N.Y., by 1989 [see correspondence in curatorial file]; sold to Richard Faletti (died 2006) and Barbara Faletti (died 2000), Chicago, Ill. and Phoenix, Ariz., 1989; given to the Art Institute, 2000.

Interpretive Resources

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