The majority of Yoruba art we studied this week focuses on expressing the community’s religious beliefs. Masks, much like the masks of cultures we have studied in previous chapters, play a huge role in how the people connect with the higher power or life force. The Gelede, Egungun, and Epa are three of the prominent masquerades seen in Yoruba societies and each communicate with Yoruba spirituality in unique ways.
The Gelede masquerades are related to the Yoruba spirituality in many ways, the most obvious being that they focus on the power and spirituality of “our mothers”, who are the elder women of the community. Although the Gelede is often danced by men, they celebrate, as well as appease, women and are often danced in pairs. Not only do the masquerades showcase the good of the society, but the bad as well. This is to ensure that our mothers use their power for the good of the community. The costumes are made of brightly colored cloths and the faces of the dancers are always covered. A chest plate is also worn to emphasize breasts. The Gelede are similar to the Egungun with the brightly colored costumes; however, there are many important differences.
The Egungun masquerade is much more spiritual than the Gelede and therefore puts a great deal of emphasis on the concealment of the dancer. Unlike the Gelede, the entire body of the Egungun masker must be covered because they are too powerful to be seen. Another difference between the masquerades is that rather than focusing on the women of the society, the Egungun celebrate the ancestors. Like the Gelede, they also incorporate moral messages into their masquerades, such as the white masks portraying Western society with objects like a watch and purse. This specific masquerade and its relationship with modernity reminded me of the Baule bloblo bla figures and how they depict women in a similar way, with some holding purses or the figure wearing the yellow bikini. The Egungun, Gelede, and Epa are all similar in that they are danced by men.
Another similarity between the Gelede and Epa masks is that they both honor women of the community. However, the Epa masquerades also focus on celebrating and promoting balance, power, and achievement in the community. The superstructures are a very prominent characteristic of these masks. They can weigh up to 40 to 60 pounds and require a great deal of physical strength and balance to successfully dance. These superstructures often resemble the warriors and soldiers of the community. They remind me of the wooden Dogon equestrian figures we studied earlier in the semester, not only because of the abstraction of the figures but also because they both have the medium incorporated into the structure. This is especially evident in the way the horses head is being portrayed. Every week we learn about new cultures and pieces of art that consistently relate to pieces we have already studied.
The religious beliefs of the Yoruba culture are expressed through their art, much like many of the African artists we have been studying communicate spirituality through their own art forms. Masquerades seem to be a common theme, not only throughout the Yoruba cultures, but throughout many of the African cultures.