Yorouba Masks

Saturday 26 September 2009 by Florence

The word “Yoruba” describes at the same time a language and a tribe living between Nigeria and Benin in a region covered by forests and savannahs. Their story can be traced from the beginning of the 16th century with the Ife civilisation. Following the Ife’s downfall a number of kingdoms, like the ones of Ijebu (1500-1750) and Oyo (1680-1830) rose to prominence. The Oyo were directed by an emperor, called Alafin, who served as a supreme judge. His power was offset by a council of seven chiefs, each one at the head of a non royal family. Almost from the beginning the Oyo extended their territory thanks to their cavalry, but in the 18th and 19th century they were almost completely decimated. At the end of the 19th century they had a reversal of fortunes with the arrival of the European colonialists, who supported and helped them raise to power once again. Today they are still an integral part of the political structure of the Yoruba.

The Yoruba are prolific craftsmen. Most of their art objects have been made between the end of the 19th century and the middle of the 20st century. Their society is now structured by many cults. The most important are the following,

The gelede cult is more practised in the occidental Yoruba kingdom and celebrates the power of old women. The Yoruba believe that these women have supernatural power, both able to destroy or benefit society, powers that are even superior than those of gods and ancestors. In order to make these extraordinary feminine powers beneficial for the community, the gelede society performs an annual ceremony. The masks are danced in pairs (see pictures n° 1 and 2) and are worn with colourful costumes. They are accompanied by dances and songs that evoke all the characters or proverbs of the Yoruba society. The ceremonies stage the symbolic representations of the Yoruba’s world.

The epa cult, also known under the name of elefon, is located in the north-east kingdoms. The epa masks, are generally worn during funerals. When they are not worn these masks are left in sanctuaries where they receive offerings and prayers.

The cult of the ancestors, associated to the engungun masks, also contributed to regulate the relationships between the royal lineage and outsiders of the dynasty and to support the political, military and cultural expansion. The costumes are completed by wood or cloth. These elements represent a sign of the human characteristics of the ancestor and at the same time a tangible sign of the devotion of his descendants.


Photo 1 Photo 2
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