Masquerade costume

image for Masquerade costume
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Egungun masquerades are created in a number of localized styles throughout the Yoruba region of southwestern Nigeria. The tradition is clearly old as a journal entry from February, 1826 by the British explorer Hugh Clapperton describes in some detail an egungun performance. This example is in the style of egungun masquerade costumes found in the Oyo/Ogbomoso area. The costume consists of a large number of cloth strips and panels of various lengths that are suspended from a wood board that is covered with cloth. This wood board is balanced on the head by the egungun performer during masquerade. The layering of cloth completely covers the dancer's body even during active movement. The designation egungun means "powers concealed" and refers to the nature of egungun as both a masquerade and also the embodiment of the supernatural power resident in the ancestors. Egungun masquerades are performed in Oyo Yoruba communities during annual and/or biennial festivals called Odun Egungun. The performances are staged within the lineage compound and also more publicly in marketplaces and/or in front of the palace. The performances pay homage to individually named ancestors or more commonly to the collective group of lineage forbearers. By so doing, the egungun's presence testifies to the living member's commitment to continuing the traditions of their predecessors.
The body of the egungun costume composed of layer upon layer of decorated cloth celebrates the wealth and status of the family honoring their predecessors. Over time, additional panels of cloth were often placed over older cloth by the owners of egungun or members of the lineage to honor or seek favor with the ancestral spirit. In the example for purchase consideration, a variety of cloth appliquéd panels, possibly applied over a number of years, is evident in the construction of the costume. This includes locally produced indigo-dyed cloth made of home-spun cotton and machine produced cloth made from imported silk, cotton and velvet. Examples of European needle point are also included in several strips.
The number and richness of appliquéd cloth panels attached to the costume emphasizes the wealth and status of the egungun owners and by extension the ancestral spirits that are being honored. The dazzling variation in cloth textures, colors and designs is accentuated during egungun performance as the individual strips of cloth move in undulating patterns as the dancer performs. Even during intense dancing or twirling movements, the ingenious design of the costume allows for the cloth panels to splay out in all directions and yet never reveal the body of the dancer beneath.
The selection of certain appliqué panels on this egungun costume was certainly intentional as they seem to symbolize or emphasize mythic and spiritual power. This includes a silk panel that display images of mermaids and another panel in white on a deep blue background that illustrates royal crowns and papal keys. According to Roman Catholicism, these keys represent all authority in heaven and in Earth that were first given to Peter in Matthew 16:19. The owners of the costume attached a number of pin-back and clothing buttons as well as several embossed metal disks to a cloth panel below the stripped netting on the front of the mask. Some of these metals are associated with Catholic religious symbolism as well including two circular metal discs one with the embossed image of the Virgin Mary and Child and the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the other with the image of St. Christopher. These references recall the words of John Pemberton III, who remarked that "the Yoruba have the imaginative ability to incorporate beneficent powers from whatever sources into their traditional modes of religious and artistic expression" (1989: 185, n.214). Other buttons attached to the front of the costume reinforce notions of physical, political and supernatural powers associated with the ancestors. A pin back button advertising a mineral water displays a photograph of the Nigerian boxer Hogan Bassey. Bassey won the featherweight world boxing title in Paris in 1957 and the following year was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He was also honored with other awards in Senegal and Nigeria. Another embossed disc attached to the costume advertises Guinness (the beer company) with the slogan "Guinness is strength." Since its introduction in Nigeria, advertising has associated Guinness beer with strength and virility. The popularity of this brand led to the establishment of a Guinness brewery in Lagos in 1962. It is noteworthy that this was the first Guinness brewery outside the United Kingdom and only the third in the world. Also of note is a political button promoting the NPC--The Northern Peoples Congress which was active just before and after Nigerian independence in 1960. Together, the buttons suggest a date for the costume to at least the mid 20th century.
Horizontal wooden plank covered with cloth onto which is suspended a variety of long decorated and pieced cloth appliqued strips and panels of various lengths. A number of the strips and panels are edged and or decorated with red serrated cloth strips. Blue and white mesh netting cover the face of the costume at front. A panel below the mesh netting on the front of the costume is covered with pin-back buttons, clothing buttons, and circular embossed metal discs.
Eric Robertson, New York , 1980 to 2005
Private collection, -- to 2005
Exhibition History
BIG/small, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., January 17-July 23, 2006
Published References
Hornbeck, S.E. 2013 Intersection Conservation Approaches to Ethnographic and Contemporary Art: Ephermeral Art at the National Museum of African Art. AIC Objects Specialty Group Postprings, vol 20, pp 222.
Hornbeck, Stephanie E. 2009. "A Conservation Conundrum: Ephemeral Art at the National Museum of African Art." African Arts 42 (3), p. 60, no. 15.
National Museum of African Art. 2006. BIG/small Family Guide. Exhibition booklet. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Summour, Rebecca and Odile Madden. 2016. "Exploring Origins: The Technical Analysis of Two Yoruba Masquerade Costumes at the National Museum of African Art." The Textile Society of America’s 15th Biennial Symposium Preprints, Crosscurrents: Land, Labor and the Port. Savannah, GA.
Credit Line
Museum purchase
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National Museum of African Art Collection
Mid-20th century
Object number
Yoruba artist
Male use
Mami Wata
Cloth, wood, metal, plastic
H x W: 170.2 x 129.5 cm (67 x 51 in.)
National Museum of African Art