Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Sacred and Ceremonial Textiles: Proceedings of the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Chicago, Illinois, 1996. (Minneapolis, 1997).


Copyright 1996 by the author.


Ebira-speaking people inhabit a region to the south-west of the cont1uence of the Niger and Benue rivers in Nigeria. The social environment is dominated by Islam, with a Christian minority. Nevertheless, in the late 1960s, when I began the research drawn upon in this paper, much of the pre-Islamic/pre-Ch11stian 11tual tradition remained intact; and all three religions presuppose a continuity of human existence beyond death. Yet the question of what persisted, and how, beyond the corpse and the grave remained unanswered in local metaphysics; and none of the Ebira words used of 'body' or 'person' were used of the deceased. Rather, the link between living and dead, enacted in rite and performance, was manifested by means of cloth; for the one index of that continuity was a textile woven by local women of hand-spun cotton with the indigo and white stripes, one pattern for the corpse of a man, and another for a deceased woman. This kind of cloth would be draped around the doorway of a house signifying the presence of the deceased, and later it would be taken down and used to wrap the corpse for burial. The lineage of the deceased's mother supplied the cloth, this constituting one of the means whereby relationships between lineages subsisted. The only other use for this kind of cloth, and then only if striped as for a man, was in the clothing of masked performers. It was as if people entered the world of the dead and returned, re-embodied in masquerade, wearing the same kind of cloth; and it was this, more than any other single aspect of social practice, that manifested the continuity between living and dead. Masked performers also enabled access to a healing energy determined by (male) ancestral precedent. Indeed, masquerade was an aesthetic, structuring, therapeutic and cognitive locus of much of Ebira social practice, a locus in which a form of textile was essential in the gathering together of ideas-and-practices wherein the relationship between living and dead was constru(ct)ed.