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Africa Direct

Yoruba Gelede Helmet Mask Superb Nigeria African Art

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Title Yoruba Gelede Helmet Mask Superb Nigeria African Art
Type of Object Helmet Mask Gelede
Country of Origin Nigeria
People Yoruba
Materials Wood, pigment
Approximate Age Mid 20th Century
Dimensions 17 inches H. x 24 inches W.
Overall Condition Good. Most of our pieces have spent decades on at least two continents, and have been treasured by several owners.   Small splits, scrapes and cracks are a normal part of their patina attesting to their age and extensive use.  We examine each piece carefully when we receive it and report any damage we find in our listings.  Please look carefully at the pictures which may also reveal condition and damage.
Damage/Repair Repaired horn and nose damaged on one head at the top, cracks and chips in places. Water damage on bottom rim not in picture.

Additional Information: This large and impressive Gelede mask is used by the Yoruba who live along the boundary between southwestern Nigeria and present day Benin (Dahomey). It shows a brightly painted female face with an impressive coiffure of braids and small panels surrounding her head. The helmet-mask is surmounted by either bush cows or horned anthropomorphic faces. Just below the animal heads and under the small panels a series of small holes are drilled into the mask that could have held feathers, leaves or some other form of decoration. Facial features are enhanced by the painting of scarification at either side of the mouth and the forehead between the eyebrows. The eyes are opened through to the inside of the mask to allow the dancer to see when the mask was worn. A costume would have been attached to the flaring base of the mask that would have covered the dancer completely. Remains of white, blue and red paint on the mask indicate that it was brightly colored at one time and would have made a colorful display adding to the dramatic sculptural presence of the helmet-mask.

Among the Yoruba, Gelede masks dance in celebration of the ‘mothers’; good witches who propitiate and control the power of the ‘bad’ witches who fly at night causing human misfortune, illness, and death. When Gelede appear, they dance in pairs in a tightly structured and complexly choreographed dance accompanied by singing and drumming. Most ‘witch-catching’ Gelede masks are carved from a single piece of wood to be worn on the top of the head over the forehead with a multiple colored costume made up of numerous panels of brightly colored cloth completely covering the body from head to foot. The panels of cloth will flare outwards while being danced giving the dancer a dynamic appearance. Gelede performances may extend over a number of days with different dance forms and movements. When performing the masks dance as a coordinated pair often with mirror-like movements during in an athletic and vigorous dance that often interacts with the audience. Their energetic dance steps will often kick up the dust so that they appear to float above the earth and the anklet bells that they wear reinforce the rhythm of the music. Gelede masks will also reflect local traditions of facial marking and symbolic headdress whereas this example brings to mind the beautiful and classic sculpted heads of ancient Ife.

Recommended Reading:

Witte, H.: A Closer Look; Local Styles in the Yoruba Art Collection of the Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal. 2004.

Lawal, B.: The Gelede Spectacle. Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in an African Culture. (Seattle, London 1996)

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

I have examined this piece and agree with description.

Niangi Batulukisi, PhD.