Carved Wooden Gelede Headdress
Yoruba People, Nigeria
length: 30cm, width: 19cm
‘The eyes that have seen Gelede have seen the ultimate spectacle.’
– a Yoruba saying.
This Gelede wooden headdress is carved from a single piece of light wood. The human face appears to represents a male. It is carved with the classical Yoruba facial features: heavy eyelids, bulgy almond-shaped eyes, flared nose and compressed full lips. The pupils and nostrils are roughly pierced with circular holes. Three scarification lines are incised on the forehead and both cheeks. They are stained in black. These scarification lines are called
pele, which many communities in south-western Yorubaland regard as ‘gems’ on the human face. The ears are shaped like question marks. Overall, the facial features exemplify supremacy, rigour and calm.
The upper part of the headdress is decorated with a colourful spiralling snake. The body of the snake is incised with triangular and diamond motifs. These motifs are painted in red, green, blue and yellow. The head of the snake is not raised, but positioned in sympathy with the human face. The snake has its mouth wide open and painted in bright red. Sharp teeth are visible.
Snakes are generally associated with positive forces in African art. As opposed to the Western negative symbolism in art, snakes are presented with transformative and creative powers. Snakes are among the animals that often provide the most useful associations and comparisons to human situations in much African lore and symbolism.
The snake’s body is drilled with a hole that goes right down through the headdress. This is to allow the insertion of palm fronds and other decorative elements to enhance the dramatic appearance of the headdress whilst being worn during a performance.
The headdress has a good patina from obvious age and use. Those areas without paint have a natural honey golden patina.
The Yoruba people have three major festivals at which such headdresses are used: The Efe/Gelede but also the Egungun and the Epa/Elefon ceremonies.
The western Yoruba people practise the Efe/Gelede cult to celebrate the mystical power (
ashe) of elderly women. Traditionally, they believe that the older women possess the power that can be used for creative or destructive purposes. Witchcraft, for example, is a destructive power used to bring about misfortune. The mystical power of elderly women is believed to be guiding the fundamental social existence.
In view of the spiritual power attributed to Yoruba women, Gelede headdresses commonly pay tribute to priestesses and female devotees of various gods. Gelede masked performance is a way of sustaining life through creating a social bond with the elderly women, who are generally referred to as ‘our mothers’ (
awon iya wa). By having pleased ‘our mothers’, there will be peace in the community and the land will be blessed by rain and fertile soil.
The Gelede festival is widely celebrated in south-western Nigeria and is thought to have its origins in the late eighteenth century. It usually takes place in the main marketplace, and at the time of vegetative renewal, between March and May, when the rains arrive. The Gelede masked performance involves carefully choreographed dance, with pairs of men wearing similar headdresses and elaborate costumes masquerade as women to honor and entertain “our mothers”.
During the performance, each pair of dancers comes forward in turn and moves in intricate dance steps towards the drum rhythm. They dance in duet in swift jerky movements that resemble movements of birds and animals. Drumming and singing are essential features of the performance.
The headdresses are worn at an angle on top of the head. They are often carved in two parts, with the lower part often the form of a human face and the upper part with either an elaborate coiffure or a depiction of human activity. The human face is often a woman with static expression, which amplifies the contrast of the vitality and diversity of the elaborate structure on the top. The headdresses are kept in a hut in the compound of one of the society members. All the headdresses are in pairs, different in form and have different names. When the ethnologist William Fagg visited a Gelede headdress house in a Pobe village, he assembled and photographed a series of Gelede headdresses that illustrate their variety and diversity. A bald man, a policeman’s wife, a male gazelle, a boar, a young man, a Muslim, a girl with a headcloth, a devotee of Shango, and a woman returning from the market were among the people and animals represented.
The Gelede dancers are men. They are clad in layers of multicoloured cloths and a costume that emphasises the full breasts, narrow waist and buttocks of a
beautiful and graceful woman. The identity of the dancer is not hidden as his face can be seen through the transparent cloth worn over the face. Unlike many other masked performances, the dancers are allowed to unmask in public. Dancer’s name may be given in the song which accompanies his act, making him the subject of praise or criticism for his performance. The harmony and balance shown by good dancers symbolise social perfection. Gelede dancers also perform whenever a member of the society dies.
Today, the Yoruba people form one of the largest tribes in west Africa. They number around 30 million and are predominant in Nigeria where they comprise 21 per cent of the population. Most Yoruba speak the Yoruba language. Today, 60 per cent are Christian and another 30 per cent are Muslim. But many, especially in rural areas, still practise old Yoruba traditions such as those based around
Bacquart, J. B., The Tribal Arts of Africa, Thames & Hudson, 1998.
Drewal, H. J., ‘Efe: Voiced Power and Pageantry’,
African Arts, Winter, vol.7, 1974.
Drewal, H. J. & Drewal, M. T.,
Gelede: Art and Female Power among the Yoruba, Indiana University Press, 1983
Fagg, W. & Pemberton, J. III.,
Yoruba: Sculpture of West Africa, Collins, 1982
The Gelede Spectacle: Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in an African Culture, University of Washington Press, 1996.
Roberts, A. F.,
Animals In African Art: From the Familiar to the Marvelous, Prestel, 1995.
formerly in private collection, Oxford, UK.Note The headdress has a custom-made stand.
Inventory no.: 2006
A Gelede headdress carver at work.
A Gelede dance.