This powerful and dynamic mask was made by the Yoruba. It is a highly unusual variant in many respects, not least because the precise function cannot be determined. There are two main candidates – Gelede masks, and Egungun masks. It has been decided that egungun masks – which are danced under the influence of ancestor spirits – are a less likely candidate, and this is thus a gelede mask (see below). The mask is positively demonic in appearance, with very dark paint and crooked, crossed eyes above a sharp nose (with an aperture so the wearer can see out) and exposed snaggle teeth. The demonic appearance is heightened by the line of sharp spikes protruding from the forehead, which frames the most unusual aspect of the mask – the superstructure. This resembles a white support, holding a black-painted vessel or pot with the lid firmly in place. The forehead is, very unusually, decorated with three sets of initials spelling out SA-BA-DA (?). These may be the makers’ names, or something of specific significance to the original owner.
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.