Gelede mask, Nigeria

Wood, pigments

12 1/5 x 9 x 8 1/3 in. (31 x 23 x 21 cm)


About this object

With a history of urbanization that dates back as early as the 9th century, Yoruba-speaking people, popularly known as the Yoruba, occupy the southwestern parts of Nigeria and the southern parts of Benin, as well as parts of Togo. For centuries the Yoruba region has been divided into kingdoms, each with its own divine ruler, as well as its own interpretation of a shared cultural and artistic heritage. Yoruba art ranges from high abstraction to symbolism to realism. Yoruba art is not only visual, but includes song, poetry, and dance. (Okediji)

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. This mask, which would have been worn over the head like a helmet, is made to be used in the Gelede dance performance. This dance celebrates the power of the primordial 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. 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 Iyà Nlà) — the primordial 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.

Each specific area is known for their style of carving. The face of this carved wood Gelede mask is painted predominantly yellowish white, with the exception of the eyes, and the facial scarification marks across the cheeks and forehead, which were emphasized with dark paint. The eye outlines were dark and the pupils have holes, which are not for seeing, but for the Great Spirit to enter and come to life. The mask has a typical headdress: a ribbed chevron female hairstyle (often a signifier of where someone comes from) that has traces of blue paint.

“The Gelede is performed by the Yoruba-Nago community that is spread over Benin, Nigeria and Togo. For more than a century, this ceremony has been performed to pay tribute to the primordial mother Iyà Nlà and to the role women play in the process of social organization and development of Yoruba society. The Gelede takes place every year after the harvests, at important events and during drought or epidemics and is characterized by carved masks, dances and chants, sung in the Yoruba language and retracing the history and myths of the Yoruba-Nago people. The ceremony usually takes place at night on a public square and the dancers prepare in a nearby house. The singers and the drummers are the first to appear. They are accompanied by an orchestra and followed by the masked dancers wearing splendid costumes. There is a great deal of preparatory craftwork involved, especially mask carving and costume making. The performances convey an oral heritage that blends epic and lyric verses, which employ a good deal of irony and mockery, supported by satirical masks. Figures of animals are often used, such as the serpent, a symbol of power, or the bird, the messenger of the “mothers”. The community is divided into groups of men and women led by a male and a female head. It is the only known masked society, which is also governed by women. Although the Gelede has nowadays adapted to a more patriarchal society, the oral heritage and dances can be considered as a testimony of the former matriarchal order.” (UNESCO)

Okediji, Moyo. “Art of the Yoruba.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 23, no. 2 (1997): 16–98.

“Oral heritage of Gelede.” UNESCO.

Gelede masqueraders. Yoruba people, Nigeria. Photo: Michel Huet, The Dance, Art and Ritual of Africa, Pantheon Books, New York 1978.