Gelede/Egungun Festival

Mon, Jun 9, 2008

Culture, Traditional Afrikan

Gelede/Egungun Festival

The annual Gelede festival honors the creative and dangerous powers of women elders, female ancestors, and goddesses, known affectionately as “our mothers.” The Gelede headdress often consists of two parts, a lower mask and an upper superstructure. The lower mask depicts a woman’s face, its composure expressing the qualities of calmness, patience, and “coolness” desired in women. The static expression and simplicity of this portion of the headdress contrasts with vitality and diversity of the superstructure. The design of the superstructure is intended to placate the mothers by displaying their inner powers for all to see, thus pleasing them and ensuring the well-being of the community. Birds signify the dangerous noctural powers of women who act as witches. Snakes symbolize the positive feminine qualities of patience and coolness. The snake coiled around the front also cautions vigilance with the saying “the snake sleeps but continues to see.” Gelede artists demonstrate their artistry and mastery of the medium by developing complex imagery within the confines of the basic cylindrical mass of wood. The elaborately carved example shown here (originally painted in bright colors) exhibits many different forms and angles to view, as the dancer moves before his admiring audience.


A Creative Response to Death
In Egba and Egbado area, as well as many parts of Yorubaland, Odun Egungun festivals are held in communities to commemorate the ancestors. Egungun masks are performed during these annual or biennial ceremonies as well as during specific funeral rites throughout the year. The masquerade is a multifaceted ceremony which includes the making of offerings as well as the honoring of ancestors for past and future aid.

Egungun performances organized for funerary purposes mark the death of important individuals. In this context, the masks reflect a creative response to death as a time of crisis involving mourning and loss. Elaborate performances serve to commemorate the dead through the remembrance of their past life while simultaneously reinforcing the relationship between the living and the recently deceased ancestor.

Among the broad range of themes incorporated in the Egungun masks are representations of numerous societal and cultural stereotypes as well as acrobatic images in which dancers turn their clothing inside out, in part to suggest the power and distance of the ancestral world. Entertaining satirical masks depicting animals and humans are performed during the masquerade and often serve as a social commentary on the life of the community.

Historically, according to the oral history of the Oyo palace lineages, the masks may have been influenced by Nupe ancestral masks. Egungun masks are brightly painted and in the context of the masquerade, the bodies of the dancers are covered with multiple layers of sumptuous cloth. Each year, the owner of an Egungun mask will add new cloth to the layers and the number of levels of cloth serves to represent the number of years a mask has actively been performed. The use of expensive cloth and bright, imported paints suggests the sumptuousness of the world of the ancestors.

Annual or biennial egungun festivals are held by the people of southwestern Nigeria and southeastern Benin to honor their ancestors and to request blessings that these ancestors may be able to provide. The layered costume of multi-colored and textured fabrics seems a far cry from the conventional idea of a “mask,” but the Yoruba’s elaborate costume functions just the same. The identity of the dancer is completely concealed – including his body – and so he becomes more like the disembodied spirit of the ancestor that his dance seeks to honor. The word egungun can be translated as “powers concealed.” The power and purpose of the costume only comes together in the presence of the spirit-ancestors. The job of the dancer centers around bringing the costume to flamboyant life, and to allow the egungun mask to transform his corporeal human body into something otherworldly and ethereal.

The cloth of the mask itself functions as a measure of the owner’s prestige. Since Yoruba myths connect nakedness with craziness and infancy, the more numerous the layers of cloth (which conceal nakedness) translates into a greater respect and wealth for the family who owns the costume. In addition, the elaborate textures and color between cloth layers are necessary in order to have the masker experience a “transformation.” This transformation is what the Yoruba call a “miracle” – it involves the dancer completely changing the look of his costume by slipping the material ‘inside out’. This is a physical part of the dance, where the dancer actually torques his body so violently that the material layers flap to show different layers of fabric, all brilliantly colored or patterned to captivate and excite the audience. The physical stamina this requires is tremendous, yet the “miracles” are performed continuously and with vigor on each occasion.

The egungun mask, given its intimate ties with ritual dancing and drumbeat, is literally impossible to appreciate behind a glass in a museum. The sterile evironment subtracts the natural festive atmosphere that gives the costume its motion and magic. Yet there is the opportunity in a museum to closely scrutinize the different layers that make up the costume. The first feature, worn next to the skin, is the undersack, made of aso oke, which is an indigo and white stripcloth. That sack, plus face netting for the face and hands, helps to completely disguise identity. Over the aso oke comes various layers of lappets, which create what researchers have named a ‘breeze of blessing” when whirled about. To add even more beauty (and thereby, power) all kinds of sequins, patterns and amulets (which often hold protective medicines) also adorn the costume.

The egungun costume fits perfectly as the medium for the masker’s communion with his ancestors, mainly because the transience of the colors that fly around are reminiscent of the transience of terrestrial life in the face of the eternal and continuous world of the spirits. Only men do the actual masking, but women do participate in the ritual dances by singing ‘praise poems.’ The style of each performance showcases the innovative freeform dancing of the performer in accordance with the drum-beats and the noise around him. A complete mastery of the egungun performance will make illusion into a reality of its own, by embellishing and transforming it through dance. Reference to origin myths is constant, bringing the past events of the given mythical story into vibrant reality once again. There is kind of a gentle fusion of worlds – the past never truly dies just as the ancestors never truly leave the world of the living to completely fend on their own.

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