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Carved Wooden Gelede Mask

Yoruba People, Nigeria
early 20th century

height: 21cm

Available - Enquire


UK art market

This unusual and very sculptural Yoruba headdress is carved from a single piece of wood. The form appears to be of a stylised warrior. It would have been worn as part of a Gelede ritual dance. The top of the headdress is carved with a crest (with much age-related wear) and light engraving to denote a coiffure. There are prominent circular ears, a very pronounced forehead, deeply-set almond shaped eyes, pierced to suggest pupils; a wide nose; and prominent lips over a pointed chin.

Both cheeks and the forehead are carved to denote scarification (pele). Indeed, most Gelede headresses have three vertical scarification lines on the cheeks, and sometimes on the forehead. Traditionally, the Yoruba regarded such markings highly.

The face and particularly the eyes retain remnants of Reckitt’s Blue coloration.

The headdress has been worn smooth over much of its surface. The interior is also smooth and patinated. The base has been drilled with several holes to allow the headdress to be attached to a textile head covering. Most of these holes have been worn from such use.

Overall, the headdress is pleasing and sculptural.

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. 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 (as in the above photograph). 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.


Bacquart, J. B., The Tribal Arts of Africa, Thames and Hudson, 1998.

Drewal, H. J., ‘Efe: Voiced Power and Pageantry’, in African Arts, Winter, vol.7, 1974.

Drewal, H. J. and Drewal, M. T., Gelede: Art and Female Power among the Yoruba, Indiana University Press, 1983.

Fagg, W. and Pemberton, J. III., Yoruba: Sculpture of West Africa, Collins, 1982.

Lawal, B., The Gelede Spectacle: Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in an African Culture, University of Washington Press, 1996.

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