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HOME : African & Tribal Art : African Collection/ HK : Yoruba Egungun Colonial Polychrome Headdress
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Yoruba Egungun Colonial Polychrome Headdress - LSO.234
Origin: Nigeria
Circa: 1900 AD to 1920 AD
Dimensions: 9.5" (24.1cm) high x 8" (20.3cm) wide
Collection: African

Additional Information: Hong Kong
Location: Great Britain
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This striking mask is made by the Yoruba, and was used in their masquerade ceremonies designed to placate Egungun – the collective spirit of Yoruba ancestors. The tribe live in Central Nigeria, and are originally descended from a Hausa migration from the northeast in about 900 AD. The Yoruba have an exceptionally rich and diverse mythology, history and religious context, all of which are directly linked to their artistic output. As a result they decorate secular materials with ornately-carved figurative and geometric designs, and also make paraphernalia linked to their religious and spiritual beliefs. This grouped heritage is known as the Itan.

The current piece is an Egungun mask, and would originally have been worn on top of the head, and attached to a long costume that would have covered the masquerader from head to toe. Egungun (lit. “power concealed”) is one of the Orisas (spirits) that are involved in Yoruba ancestor worship, and the number of Egunguns reflects the history of tribal subgroups throughout the Yoruba range. The dances take place during a festival known as the Odun Egungun (although domestic worship is also known) under the authority of trained priests who dance, then enter a trance state to spiritually cleanse the community. They tend to mime the morally questionable behaviour of current members of the village, implying that the ancestors are aware and disapproving of such antics. The assumption is that their descendants will be suitably humbled by this and cease their misdeeds. The tradition has a long history and seems to have grown out of the Oyo Yoruba’s appropriation of a masking tradition originally pertaining to the Nupe, which was then amended somewhat to emphasise its ancestor worship aspects.

There are numerous variants of Egungun masks, all of which generally refer to the Yoruba people but also to subdivisions of the tribe, as well as village history, family history and even personal history of the carver. The current piece depicts the torso of a voluptuous woman as the central figure, flanked by two children who are probably meant to represent twins (a major element in Yoruba society). They are joined together by struts, and sit atop a block of wood pierced around the perimeter to accept the cordage needed to attach the fabric element of the costume. All three figures are painted in dark brown pigment, with contrasts provided by the white pigment trapped in the deeply incised scarifications in their faces (triple and single parallel lines) and torsos (boxed crosses). The twins’ hair is indicated by incised marks, but only on the exterior aspect, presumably as that would be the only part of the mask seen when dancing. The female’s hair is indicated with ridges decorated with fishbone hatching, which has been almost obscured by the application of Reckitts blue – a colonial period laundry dye that was prized by Yoruban craftsmen. The face is comparatively simple, with a broad nose, bulbous eyes and a slightly bemused expression. The ears are small and triangular. The twin to the figure’s right is more firmly carved than the other, with a high crested coiffure and definite features. The surface of the mask is glossy with use and handling wear. This is an interesting piece of Yoruban magical paraphernalia, and an attractive work of art in its own right. - (LSO.234)


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