Art of Africa

angola cross

Mask depicting warrior hunter (Oro Efe), early 20th century
Republic of Benin, Ketu-Ohori (Yoruba)
Wood, pigment
15 x 13 inches
Gift of Cecilia and Irwin Smiley 1998-13-12

An Efe-Gelede celebration is generally a two-day event in which masks are divided into those that make their appearance at night (Efe), and those that appear on the following day (Gelede). The nighttime Efe performance takes place in the market area, which is generally regarded as the economic and social realm of women. Efe-Gelede ceremonies recognize and honor the formidable powers of Yoruba female elders, referred to collectively as "our mothers." This celebration involves masqueraders, dancers, singers, and orators who impart social commentary, legend, and history through performance.

A wide variety of masks are worn in Efe-Gelede performances, all of which touch on aspects of Yoruba life. Snakes, birds, tortoises, and lizards, as well as historical public figures, fashion trends, and foreigners, are frequently depicted. This Efe mask is unusual in its representation of a bearded Muslim man from northern Nigeria, distinguished by seven carved amulets (three across his forehead and four flanking his beard). These amulets signify evil-averting devices containing verses from the Qur'an, which empower the mask. There has been a strong Muslim presence in Yorubaland since the seventeenth century, and aspects of Islam have been incorporated into local religious traditions. The white color of this mask tells us that it would be danced at the nighttime Efe ceremony in order to educate and entertain the community on both secular and spiritual matters, while both placating and honoring Yoruba women.

An Efe-Gelede performance exemplifies the Yoruba tradition of synthesizing the arts of mythology, poetry, sculpture, dance, and music through masquerade. Efe-Gelede is performed in times of celebration and of calamity to honor and appease the mothers. If admired and respected, the women will protect and bless the community. If neglected, they may use their supernatural powers to wreak havoc on society. Known for their beauty and athletic display, Efe-Gelede festivals honor and celebrate all women, especially mothers, a significant phenomenon in a patriarchal society.

Text by Dana Rush, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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