As part of Grand Challenges 2015, a group of University of Exeter students have been working with the World Cultures collection. They have researched and digitised two objects from the collection, creating additional interpretive material and making two short films about the objects. One of the objects they researched is a Yoruba gelede mask from southwest Nigeria; the students uncovered a wealth of information about the object:
The mask, likely from Otta, capital of Aworri state, was obtained by Francis Pinkett, a colonial administrator in Nigeria, between about 1900 and 1910. The mask is one of 200 items of Yoruba and Benin origin in the RAMM. The Yoruba is a group of about ten million people and is considered the most art-producing people in Southwest Nigeria. Pinkett’s widow first placed her husband’s collection on loan in 1927, later converting the loan into a gift for the museum. This mask is made of pigmented wood: head with pointed chin, face is generic woman face and painted white (which has been mostly removed), ribbed chevron female hairstyle (the hair is a signifier of where someone comes from).
The Gelede dance
This dance celebrates the power of the Great Mother and appeases spiritual forces. Each dancing costume consists of an elaborately carved wooden headdress and clothes of assorted fabrics. The headdress is an important part of a Gelede masquerade: it signifies social cohesion and association; each member should feel inclusive in the community.
The spirit in Yoruba culture
The power of dance is greatly enhanced within the context of ceremonial control, as it is the energy of the dancer that captures the crowd’s attention. During a trance state, “spirit possession” is achieved, the sight of this condition confirms the presence of the ancestors; the masks remind us that the people are connected to the world of the dead.
The design of the mask
Each specific area is known for their style of carving. The eye outlines are dark blue and the pupils have holes, which are not for seeing, but for the Great Spirit to enter and come to life. A typical headdress demonstrates the Gelede ideals, which are also expressed in songs, designed to promote the social and spiritual wellbeing of the community. Some male masqueraders even interpreted as satirical looks on the role of men and women in everyday life.
The process of making
The Iyalashe (Great Mother) commands the mask. Once the sex and the motif of the masquerade have been determined, the artist must wait for the approval of the Iyalashe to make the mask. Once her permission is obtained, the carver is commissioned and left to his artistic ability and imagination to sculpt the headdress. The Yoruba associates artistic creativity with the divine; the universe is the handiwork of the Supreme Being and the human image was created by the deity.
The Gelede spectacle
Gelede is a public display which combines artwork and ritual dance to entertain the public, educate the virtues of good citizenship, and inspire worship all at the same time. There is a Yoruba saying: “Iwa L’Ewa”, meaning “character is beauty”. In the Gelede ideal, goodness comes from the natural world and it is beautiful: it is socially desirable because it elicits admiration, respect, and love, which in turn generates harmony.
The Great Mother
Some women are feared as witches, but women are mostly celebrated as the Great Mothers. Gelede masks are made in pairs of male and female masks, but they are worn by men. They dance to emphasize the role of the mother in their society and to commemorate motherhood, the Iyalashe (or the Ìyá Nlá) – “the Great Mother” who has the power. The mask is associated with a founding foremother, such as an earth or water deity, and includes as many subjects as possible – human beings, animals, and plants to reflect the variety of her offspring.