Notes on Drewal’s “Gelede Masquerade: Imagery and Motif”

This was an incredibly detailed and informative article surrounding the Gelede masquerade practice of the Yoruba people in Nigeria. Drewal takes care to discuss the origin, meaning and execution of Gelede. By default, this encompasses the religious and spiritual beliefs of the people, their understanding and attitudes of social structure, and to put it quite crudely, how they have fun and express these beliefs.

I found it especially interesting that the origin of this masquerade is from a belief in female figures, known collectively as the “mothers”. The western Yoruba, who pay tribute to these figures through the Gelede masquerade, believe they possess a spiritual life force that is dual in nature, representing both the positive and negative aspects related to women within their culture. The negative mother, known as aje, takes the form of a destructive witch that can transform into a bird of the night to devour their victims (p8). These negative forces are believed to be the cause of impotency issues, infertility and the death of children, as one elder suggests they can even “see a child in the womb” (p18). The reverse mother, or “great mother” however, is believed to be a positive and calming influence with knowledge of herbal medicines and a power to assure equality of power, wealth and prestige within a community.

The way the Gelede pays tribute to these beliefs is through a complex masquerade made up of numerous motifs, masks and meanings to represent the concerns of the people or “children” of the mothers. The dual nature of the belief in the mothers is therefore echoed in the implementation of this masquerade as the masqueraders, although always men, change their costume to represent all areas and things in society including, men, women, animals, fashion and foreign elements. One specific detail I found interesting for example was the use of the colours red and white to represent “hot” and “cold” gods within one mask (p11). Within the broad categories of representation, satire is also an element of some of the motifs within the masks. One such example which I feel highlights an element of play and social release of tension was found in the description of a mask entitled “The Brazilian”. The author suggests that the mask displayed an exaggeration of non-African features adding a strangeness and humour to it, which he describes as “anti-aesthetic visualization” (p17).

Overall this article highlighted more layers and elements behind masquerades in Western Africa than I had previously realised or considered. The element of humour was particularly enlightening as it is sometimes possible to view performances of this nature in a solely religious or spiritual light. Although the author was extremely thorough in his explanation I still found it beneficial to search through various youtube videos of the Gelede masquerade for even better visual understanding.

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One thought on “Notes on Drewal’s “Gelede Masquerade: Imagery and Motif”

  1. Pingback: The Masquerade | Eradica

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