About this artwork
This mask would have been worn during the annual or biannual Egungun festival, performances and celebrations to honor lineage ancestors. In addition to their deployment during the annual festivals, Egungun masks can also be brought out at funerals for important lineage members or in times of crisis, when the guidance of the ancestors is sought. This mask depicts a figure wearing a pith helmet, a potent symbol of colonialism in Nigeria, even when worn by a non-European. The helmet is surmounted by several birds—one on the crest and five smaller ones encircling the rim—that symbolize the supernatural powers of women, sometimes understood as witchcraft. The lines incised across the cheeks, forehead, and outer corner of the eyelids represent scarification or identification marks, linking the mask to a specific lineage—perhaps that of the mask’s owner. The series of holes around the edge of the mask, through which a thin cord is interlaced, would have allowed the mask to be connected to the fabric costume worn during the ceremonies.
An Egungun festival includes a great many masks, each with a unique form and style. While there are many identifiable types of Egungun masks and costumes, there is also a great deal of creativity exercised in their making. Such individuality is also expressed by the personalized name that each mask is given by its owner.
The Yoruba word egungun can be translated as “powers concealed” and refers to any masked performer or masquerade. In this sense, the word elucidates a critical function of Yoruba masquerade, which is to cloak and contain otherworldly forces and to help make possible the vital interaction between humans, ancestors, and gods. Egungun is also the proper name of a masking tradition staged to honor ancestors and the newly deceased, those “Dwellers in Heaven” or “Beings from Beyond” that continue to influence the lives of their kin from orun, the otherworld.
The Egungun masquerade originated within the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, perhaps as early as the 17th century, and spread to other corners of the Yoruba region over time. Today, many Yoruba communities have an Egungun society—made up of adult men and women who represent the community’s lineages—that plans the appearances of Egungun masqueraders at funerals, special family occasions, and yearly or biennial Egungun festivals. During these events costumed men move through the town embodying the presence of their ancestors while songs are sung in their praise and invocations are offered to them. Through rituals lasting several weeks, the masqueraders visit lineage compounds to bless or punish their descendants; even royalty must seek their favors in order to have a prosperous year. Though women and children participate by singing, dancing, and watching, they are kept at a safe distance from the masqueraders, whose actions are unpredictable.
Egungun masquerade costumes are commissioned and owned by men. The making of a costume involves close consultation with a tailor and sometimes a sculptor if a wooden mask or headdress is required. It also requires the assistance of a diviner, who can communicate with the spirit world; an herbalist, who makes packets of protective medicines that are attached to the costume; and the leader of the Egungun society, who performs rituals to sanctify the costume and selects the young man who will wear it while performing. Taking on the responsibility of owning a masquerade costume is demanding, but it also brings personal prestige and demonstrates a man’s commitment to his extended family, a commitment that is held in great esteem by the Yoruba.
- Currently Off View
- Arts of Africa
- Mask for Egungun (Ere Egungun)
- Nigeria (Object made in)
- Wood and pigment
- 39.4 × 25.4 × 30.5 cm (15 1/2 × 10 × 12 in.)
- Tillie C. Cohn Endowment Fund