This brightly-coloured mask was made by the Yoruba, during the colonial period, as evidenced by the fact that it is a traditional form, yet painted with oil-based western paint. It is a cap mask, with a relatively low face, featuring triangular eyes with slit pupils, a flat, complex nose and horizontal, plain lips. The relief detail of the face’s shape is carved in with considerable dexterity. The eyebrows and other small details – such as the facial scars – are marked in or highlighted with black paint. The ears are small and pierced. The coiffure is the most impressive aspect of this mask, with series of herringbone “plaits” extending upwards and gathered together in a vertical queue which doubles as a carrying handle. The quality of the rendering is very high.
The Yoruba have an exceptionally rich and diverse mythology, history and religious context, all of which are directly linked to their artistic output; in Yoruba society, this grouped heritage is known as the Itan. This fine polychrome mask is intimately associated with rituals performed by mens societies bent upon the protection of the living. Specifically, Gelede is intended to honour the spiritual aspects of femininity, and to prevent this from becoming destructive to the society to which they belong. Angered female spirits (Aje) may destroy entire communities; for this reason, they are placated by dancing performances so that their power is directed towards the benefits of the group.
The Yoruba are a Central Nigerian tribal group, originally descended from a Hausa migration from the northeast in about 900 AD. A small kingdom – Ile Ife – was founded by Oduduwa, followed by great sociopolitical expansion into Southwest Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. The influence of the city was felt far beyond these boundaries, however, and many smaller political entities were held under its sway. Communities were presided over by the Oba (king) and various senates (Ogboni), and councils made up of guild leaders, merchants and the lesser aristocracy (related to the Oba). The Yoruba have an exceptionally rich and diverse mythology, history and religious context, all of which are directly linked to their artistic output. In Yoruba society, this grouped heritage is known as the Itan, of which this striking mask is a part.
Each village and area had distinctive patterns of Gelede masks that reflect some facet of their social organisation or mythology. The current example is a well-carved and decorated specimen with extensive use wear and a good patina. The nature of the painting places it in the post-conquest period, when African artists were exploring a variety of new ways of expressing themselves through the application of western paints etc in the decoration of traditional items. It therefore has considerable ethnographic as well as aesthetic and social value. This is a mature and well-executed mask.