This elegant and brightly-coloured dynamic mask was made by the Yoruba. Its exuberant colouring mark it out as a colonial model, dating to – or after – the arrival of the Europeans in Nigeria, and using the paint they brought with them to decorate what is a traditional form. It is a helmet/cap mask, with eye slits in the middle face to enable the wearer to see. The ground is bright red, with white eyes and teeth. The features are unusually well-rendered and naturalistic, notably the carefully-rounded nose, the elegant brows and the plump lips. Unusually, the triple scars that mark the cheeks of most Yoruba pieces are absent. The brow is tall, with a tall, hatched-design black-painted coiffure topped by a gripping post. The perimeter of the mask's base is plain and marked with nail holes that relate to the costume with which it was originally worn.
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.