GELEDE MASQUERADE: IMAGERY AND MOTIF
Being of Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani descent born in Ghana, I found Drewal’s article on the Yoruba Gelede masquerade interesting, entertaining and a revelation which put things in perspective for me in regards to the actions of and attitudes towards women in my immediate and distant Nigerian family.
The Gelede masquerade ceremony, at its core, elevates motherhood to the status of deities with attributes of supernatural powers. The masks which are carved in different shapes and painted in different distinct colours, are believed to embody and symbolise all aspects of Yoruba life and identity with emphasis on the importance of the ‘Great Mother’ were once believed to have given power over various deities and men by the supreme god Oludumare. As noted by Drewal, mothers eventually lost this sovereignty due to their inability to act with calmness and rationality. This general view of women however, is not exclusive to the Yoruba peoples. The portrayal of women as the irrational sex has been a frequent feature in many ancient and current civilisations, cultures and religions.
As with all deities, the Great Mother of the Yoruba is also known for her dualities. On one hand is the caring, loving, life giving and nurturing mother and the other hand is the total antithesis; the destructive mother, the bringer of infertility, impotence and death of children. This malevolent side of the Great Mother is known as aje (witch). However, despite their potentially vengeful nature, mothers are revered and are required to be worshipped with a great deal of patience.
Another key aspect of the Gelede Masquerade ceremony is the details of the various costumes and its symbolic significance. Although the performers are males, the costumes often represent both genders often as twins and sometimes animals. The representation of men in the ceremony could be viewed as an acknowledgement of the fact that, despite the mother being the superior gender, the man’s role is equally important as his involvement is key to procreation hence the continuity of the Yoruba people, society and traditions are secured.
What I found entertaining about the text is the way the female costuming for the ceremony is fashioned. For example, Drewal describes how wooden construction covered in thick layers of cloth produces broad hips and ‘massive’ buttocks, which is regarded as a sign of attractiveness. It reminded me of my aunties who had such body shapes and were absolutely proud of their massive hips and buttocks. My mum being slim, always threatened me by saying, if you don’t look after yourself, you’ll end up like your aunties, which to me was a frightening probability. Furthermore, the text explained why women in my family are known to exert authority over men when it is required.
To conclude my thoughts on the text, I would like to say distinguished scholars like Hugh Trevor-Roper could not have been more ignorant of the history and cultures of Africa by claiming it was a continent of darkness without history until the arrival of Europeans. The Gelede Masquerade ceremony in my opinion, is a Yoruba version of the celebration of ancient goddesses of fertility such as Isis, Aphroditus and Hera. Perhaps what I find more impressive is the fact that such ceremonies are still being recognised today. Perhaps the most popular post-colonial African art which reveres mothers is the song Sweet Mother by Nigerian Artiste Prince Nico Mbagar However, its true essence and symbolism is questionable due to the immense growth of religions such as Islam and Christianity, which are known to condemn such ancient practices.