The Rosenthal Yoruba efe/gelede Headdress
This splendid carving for an efe/gelede masquerade is one of five sculpted in the late 19th or early 20th century by an unknown carver in the Anago area of southwest Yorubaland, on the border with the Republic of Benin. The other four are in private and museum collections in Europe and the United States. They were published in Fagg and Pemberton, Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa, New York, 1982, plates 2, 5, 29, and 49.
As in all gelede headdresses, there is the basic contrast between the composed face and the drama of the superstructure. The hand of this master carver, however, is initially suggested by the angular definition of the ear, similar to, but more severe than, that employed by other Anago and Egbado carvers. Far more distinctive of our artist's hand are the rows of tiny triangles carved across the brow and occasionally down the side of the face, although they appear on only three of the four carvings noted above. The faces of all five carvings are remarkably similar, with narrow almond-shaped eyes and a slender nose and slightly open mouth. On two of the faces, however, the role of the masquerades for which they were carved required the carver to add the suggestion of a beard.
The efe/gelede festival is found only among southwestern Yoruba peoples. It is held annually, usually in the spring, in honor of "our mothers," awon iya wa. Although Yoruba society is essentially a patrilineal and patrilocal system, there is the recognition that Yoruba culture is supported by the "power" of women. "Power" is often used as a translation of the Yoruba word ashe, which is perhaps better translated as "authority." Ashe is the inner, hidden authority by which a person, animal, or plant is what it is. It refers to one's essential nature, as in a woman's capacity to give or withhold birth. In the context of the gelede festival, "our mothers" is a collective term referring to the hidden, beneficent, and dangerous powers of women, especially elderly women, as well as to female ancestors and deities. Hence, through song, dance, and costume, the underlying truth of the power and the authority of women in a male-oriented society is acknowledged.
In the spectacle of the efe/gelede festival, masked performers usually appear in pairs. Their costumes and dances celebrate the various roles of women and men in Yoruba society (mother, trader, priestess, hunter, blacksmith), but also engage in social commentary on unacceptable behavior by both male and female. Whatever the subject matter of the superstructure, there is the female face with the penetrating gaze that rests on the dancer's head. It is a face that is composed, cool. It expresses the iwa, the essential nature, the inner reality or authority, ashe, of women that is not readily visible.
Visible are an elaborate coiffure and also a portion of her head tie, gele, the hallmarks of a woman's beauty, ewa. The head tie is a strip of brightly colored cloth, which women fashion in a variety of shapes. They are visually fascinating, but they also elicit responses by men conveying their ambivalence about women. This is revealed in gelede masquerades where, above the composed face, the headdress depicts two snakes struggling with one another in a wild intertwined pattern. The image is a visual metaphor of that which is fascinating and dangerous. It is this interplay of beauty and uncontrollable powers that one may discern in a woman's head tie.
Women have their hair woven in elaborate patterns and wear geles that are their "crowns," the disclosure of their ashe. With artistic imagination it is precisely this union of a woman's inner authority and external beauty that the skilled carver of this headdress has sought to convey. Before he appears in public, the dancer who wears this type of headdress will add many more brilliantly colored cloths suspended from the base of the headdress and descending from his waist. As he enters the dancing area he mimics the dancing style of women, moving with a grace appropriate for honoring "the mothers."
John Pemberton III
Crosby Professor of Religion, Emeritus
Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale