About this artwork
This vibrantly colored Janus-faced mask reflects the diversity of Egungun masks of the Yoruba. The word egungun means masquerade, and these masks are used in Odun Egungun festivals, which are performed for ancestors throughout the Yoruba region. This mask’s elaborately grooved horns and central conical coiffure, which is painted blue, rise dramatically from the mask’s two faces. Two monkey figures once ran down the horns with front legs perched on the head, but one of the monkeys is now missing. The horns may signify its use as a hunter’s mask. Hunters are one of the few Yoruba social groups that are linked across different lineages and who have their own Egungun masqueraders.
While the costumes and rituals for Odun Egungun festivals are distinct and usually quite diverse within each region, these celebrations universally commemorate the ancestors who founded the lineage and continue to affect the daily existence of the living. Through rituals lasting several weeks, the masqueraders may visit lineage compounds to bless or punish their descendants.
The Egungun masquerade originated within the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, perhaps as early as the 17th century, and spread to other corners of the Yoruba region over time. Today, many Yoruba communities have an Egungun society—made up of adult men and women who represent the community’s lineages—that plans the appearances of Egungun masqueraders at funerals or other special family occasions, as well as at yearly or biennial Egungun festivals. During these celebrations costumed men move through the town embodying the presence of their ancestors while songs are sung in their praise and invocations are offered to them. Though women and children participate by singing, dancing, and watching, they are kept at a safe distance from the masqueraders, whose actions are unpredictable.
Egungun masquerade costumes are commissioned and owned by men. The making of a costume involves close consultation with a tailor and sometimes a sculptor if a wood mask or headdress is required. It also necessitates the assistance of a diviner, who can communicate with the spirit world; an herbalist, who makes packets of protective medicines that are attached to the costume; and the leader of the Egungun society, who performs rituals to sanctify the costume and select the young man who will wear it while performing. Taking on the responsibility of owning a masquerade costume is demanding, but it also brings personal prestige and demonstrates a man’s commitment to his extended family, which is held in great esteem by the Yoruba.
- Currently Off View
- Arts of Africa
- Mask for Egungun (Ere Egungun)
- Wood and pigment
- 80 × 25.4 × 27.9 cm (31 1/2 × 10 × 11 in.)
- Gift of Dr. Jimmy and Mrs. Jetta Jones