Gelede Masks

Image: Larry Dupont

Image: Larry Dupont

In western Yorubaland, there is a masquerade performance known as ‘Gelede’ – this is a term which roughly translates to “soothe or treat with gentleness,” and is understood in relation to women. According to Henry John Drewal, the purpose of the Gelede performance is to acknowledge and celebrate the abilities and strengths of women – particularly mothers, who are seen as life givers. The objects used during the Gelede ceremony – especially the mask – aid the celebration of qualities such as calmness, patience and good judgement, which the Yorubas tend to associate with mothers.

Oro Efe mask performing during Yoruba Gelede masquerades.   Image: Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher

Oro Efe mask performing during Yoruba Gelede masquerades. 

Image: Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher

During the Gelede ceremony, there is a lot of dancing, praise and worship. The dancers usually wear Gelede masks, which may appear in different sizes, shapes and colours. It seems reasonable to say that Gelede masks enhance the Gelede celebration in a unique way. Although the masks may depict characteristics of men, women and animals, they tend to be worn on the head by male dancers during the masquerade performance. Some writers suggest that this is symbolic of integrated gender dynamics, and the appreciation of one gender by the other among the Yorubas.

Image: Davide Conelli

Image: Davide Conelli

Some say that the Gelede tradition stemmed from some decisions made by Yemoja – the Orisa (deity) who is considered to be the mother of all Orisas, and the goddess of the Ogun Rivers and all water. Yemoja is said to have made an appeal to the Ifa oracle to help her resolve the difficulties she was having with conception. Through Ifa consultation, Yemoja was advised to participate in a sacrificial ceremony in which she would place wooden artefacts on her head and dance. As a result of the ritual, Yemoja became pregnant and birthed a male child who came to be known as ‘Efe’. She later birthed a female child who came to be known as ‘Gelede’. During the night and prior to the Gelede ceremony which tends to occur during the day, a ceremony known as ‘Efe’ is held. While Gelede involves a significant amount of dancing, Efe involves a significant amount of singing. Just as both Efe and Gelede must have been important children to Yemoja, the actual ceremonies of Efe and Gelede are of great importance to several people of Yoruba heritage.

For further information on Gelede masks, we recommend the following texts written by Henry John Drewal - “Gelede Masquerade: Imagery and Motif” (1974) and “Gelede: Art and Female Power Among the Yoruba” (1983). For more pictures of the masks and ceremonies, see herehere and here.

For more on the history and tradition of Yoruba people, the following resources are a great start:

'The History of the Yorubas From The Earliest Times and Beginning of The British Protectorate' by Reverend Samuel Johnson, and 'A History of The Yoruba People' Stephen Adebanji Akintoye.


This article is a TBBNQ Feature. See original post here.