Sat | Jan 19, 2019

Mystique of the masks

Published:Sunday | September 23, 2018 | 12:20 AM
Yoruba mask

For those of us outside of Africa, African masks can hold a certain aesthetic appeal or mysterious lure. After all the famous painter Pablo Picasso was inspired to create his cubist paintings after discovering African masks and other forms of traditional African art. Traditional African masks have also influenced other 20th century, artistic movements such as fauvism and expressionism.

While the specific meanings and use associated with ritual masks vary widely in different cultures, some traits are common to many African cultures. Ritual and ceremonial masks are an essential feature of the traditional culture of the peoples of a part of Sub-Saharan Africa, which is located roughly between the Sahara and the Kalahari Desert.

Masks used in a traditional context usually have a spiritual and religious meaning and they are used in ritual dances and social and religious events.

A special status is attributed to the artists who create masks, and to those that wear them in ceremonies. In many cases, mask-making is an art that is passed on from father to son, along with the knowledge of the symbolic meanings conveyed by each masks. African masks come in all different colours, sizes shapes.

One mask that is very important to the Yoruba people of Nigeria is the Gelede mask. The Yoruba are an ethnic group which is located in southwestern and north-central Nigeria, as well as in the Republic of Benin and Togo. Together, these regions are known as Yorubaland. The Yoruba constitute one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa and the majority of this population is located in Nigeria.

The full ritual of the Gelede is very involved and is held annually during the beginning every new agricultural cycle. The celebration is composed of Efe (the opening night) celebration and Gelede (daytime) celebration, different masks are worn for each event. Both celebrations feature many ritualised aspects and characters in elaborate costumes, song, dance and performances.

This celebration is held annually to honour and placate the powers of the female ancestors and elderly women, and deities, who are known as (awon iya wa) ‘our mothers’ in this society.

The Yoruba see the powers of women as being similar to gods or spirits, so much so that it is believed that the powers of women can be for the great benefit of individuals or communities, or they can cause the demise of an entire community. So the Gelede festival is danced exclusively by men, with masks showing male and female roles to celebrate women and mothers.


According to Drewal (1983), “a woman’s status derives largely from her reputation in trading, her craftsmanship, and her wealth, rather than her husband’s importance. Since the principal occupation of Yoruba women is trading, many Gelede masks depict market women.

These women are economically independent of their husbands and have the potential to earn even more money than the husband.” Therefore many celebrations often take place in a marketplace, which seen as the domain of women as they control trade. As mentioned before, the Gelede is danced once a year at least at the beginning of the growing season for crops, but may also be danced in times of drought or disease.

The wooden arts of the Yoruba are known for their use of symmetry, large eyes, colour and re-creation of identification marks on the face. Gelede masks which belong to this subgroup of art typically have idealised naturalistic facial features, identification or ‘tribal marks’ or ‘pele’ which are usually appear as three strokes on each cheek and sometimes on the forehead.

These marks are made to highlight traditional tribal markings, which show what group of the Yoruba the bearer belongs to (such as the mask pictured). The head of these masks usually feature elaborate coiffures to represent the hairstyles of women.

These masks can also feature animals or other worldly objects that are meant to portray special meanings, as a way of imparting special messages to the crowd or as a means of social commentary. The rest of the Gelede dancer costume is made from women’s clothes and scarves, which are used to make the ideal voluptuous form of a woman below the mask. The cloth covering the face is usually quite transparent to enable the dancer to see.

Sources indicate that this tradition has been replaced by Mother’s Day across much of the Yoruba lands. Because of that, and because of its significance, it has been placed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

This means that there has been funding allocated for projects to raise awareness, running workshops about the various aspects of Gelede within the communities that will be carrying on the tradition and there have been radio campaigns to encourage people to become interested and take part. With these efforts, the future of the Gelede tradition is looking strong.

This mask was acquired by the Institute of Jamaica from former Venezuelan Ambassador to Jamaica Ottmaro Silva in the 1970s. The original colour of the mask has faded over time the original design and structure still remains intact.


Drewal, Henry John, and Margaret Thompson Drewal.  Gẹlẹdẹ: Art and Female Power among the Yoruba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Mullen, N. Yoruba Art and Culture, Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.  2004.

Oral heritage of Gelede. Benin, Nigeria and Togo. Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2001).

Welsh-Asante, K. African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry. Africa World Press Inc, 1998.

- Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator,  National Museum Jamaica