Henry John Drewal “Gelede Masquerade: Imagery and Motif”

The article is about the Gelede masquerade of the Yoruba and mostly concentrates on its imagery and motif.
The aim of Gelede is to pay tribute to the special powers of women (whether elderly, ancestral or deified). They are also known under the name of “the mothers”. Two mediums in this masquerade have a very important part to play: the Efe songs and the masks and costumes. The masks are important when it comes to expressing the concerns of “the children”. The mothers are thought to have special powers and they can use them either to the detriment or the benefit of individuals and communities. The negative dimension is called aje, which means a terrible or destructive mother or witch. The destructive mothers are also believed to transform into birds at night in order to devour their victims. What I found interesting was that the witches institute prohibitions and then refuse to explain them in order to create situations where men can be punished.
But the mothers also have a positive aspect to them. The good mothers are believed to be calm, creative, protective progenitors.
The Yoruba also have male dominated cults who confront, attack and destroy the witches – one of the examples for this would be the Atinga movement. Masks and other visual forms associated with these cults contain imagery evocative of male supremacy and vengeance.

The rest of the article goes on to introduce the reader to the masquerade morphology. For example the masquerades are always performed by men, but the costumes worn appear as both, male and female. The most important part of the masquerade is the mask. It consists of two parts: the upper portion of the masquerader’s head and the superstructure.

Another interesting fact I read about is that hair and hat styles for the male and hair and headwrap for the female are very popular motifs in Gelede. One headwrap style called “Gowon” honors the former Nigerian head of state and a hairstyle popular in Lagos called “Eko Bridge” commemorates the building of a new bridge to Lagos Island and apparently the architecture of the hairstyle reflects that of the bridge.

I found the article very enjoyable to read and it was nice to look at art for a change. I did find it a bit difficult to keep up with all the different Yoruba names and words the author mentioned. It was sometimes a bit confusing to keep track of all of them but I think I managed quite well. I did not think it was necessary to disagree with the author or question his explanations and ideas, but I would definitely like to read other articles on Gelede masquerade in the future. Otherwise I think this article was great and gave me a new perspective to look at masquerades as previously I had studied the Ijele and Ihioma, which differ from the Gelede.
Masquerades are a very important part of life in some Nigerian communities, the Yoruba even have a proverb to express that. It goes like this: Oju to ba fi ri Gelede ti de opin iron (The eyes that have seen Gelede have seen the ultimate spectacle).

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