Gaining knowledge on the subject of indigenous African traditions and cultures is something we have been passionate about for a very long time and it is this passion that propelled us to start Amechi, with designs inspired by the beautiful, enriching and diverse indigenous cultures across the continent.
So, starting with the Egungun masquerade culture of the Yoruba people, this section of our blog will be dedicated to the various African traditions and cultures which have inspired us over time and continue to do so.
The Egungun Masquerade culture is an annual or biennial celebration that features masked costumed figures generally believed to be the spirits of departed ancestors, or their human representation. It is a centuries-old culture, common in West Africa among the Yoruba people in Nigeria, Togo, Benin republic and their descendants from the African Diaspora, particularly in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Barbados, and the United States. During the festivals, the streets are usually flooded with crowds from within and outside the country, including men, women, elders and children. Towns and cities where the festivals are hosted experience a significant economic boost as traders far and wide come to supply all the necessary resources to ensure the success of the day. The appearance of the Egungun Masquerade is accompanied by activities such as dancing, singing, drumming, celebration, pomp and pageantry, and loud cheers that sink into the atmosphere to paint the day in colourful glitters.
The origin of the Egungun Masquerade culture traces back to the Nupe kingdom who partly influenced the practices and tradition of the Yoruba people. Although there was the Nupe influence, it is worth mentioning that the Yoruba culture and practice had its traditional take-off with various cultural engagements like the Egungun culture. Many of the activities and practices were born out of ancient creativity, while some of them were as a result of external influences (like the Nupe case) that only came to spice up the creativity.
The function of the Egungun Masquerade culture
The functions of the Egungun Masquerade culture in Yoruba land can be generally divided into the following:
- Ancestral protection: this involves seeking protection and support from the ancestors to ensure that peace and security overshadow the land. After a successful festival, the people are optimistic about goodness and rejoice while expecting a fruitful year ahead of them.
- Theatrical performance: in this case, the Egungun Masquerade appears to entertain and commemorate the celebration of any individual within the community.
- Military purposes: as a sign of potential success and a morale booster, the Egungun Masquerade supports and follows the soldiers to the battlefield, dancing and making certain moves that motivate and keep the men focused.
- For leadership purposes: whenever a new Oba (king) is to be enthroned, or the excesses of a current Oba are to be checked, the Masquerade is featured to show ancestral support and to help ensure peace and serenity in the community.
Egungun Masquerade Costumes
Vintage Egungun Masquerade costumes were made with high-quality disparate fabrics which were mostly locally woven but evolved over time due to readily available mass-produced fabrics which were considered to facilitate the costume making process. The costumes contain metal, beads, leather, animal skin, bones, and potent empowering materials and are usually colourful, baggy and cover all parts of the figure, leaving no area exposed.
The colourful nature, the baggy appearance, the fanciful nature of dress and the outlay of any Egungun present in Yoruba land was borne out of its core genesis, traditional richness and cultural flamboyancy that best portrays the beauty and liveliness of culture, tradition and heritage. The Egungun figures have a bold and fiery outlook that creates an impression of a “god/ancestors-like image on earth.” No wonder in Yoruba land, their appearance and state of spiritual relevance earn them the title “Ara Orun kin kin” which means: “A Member of the celestial order.”
Today, the fabrics chosen for the festivals are literally of the highest standard and must be the best quality readily available. They include sequins, damask, velvet, Indian madras, silk, printed cotton and linen.
Feature photo and the two above credit to Massimo Rumi
Egungun Masquerade Costumes (Textiles)
If you've ever experienced an Egungun festival, you would know how colourful and distinct their costumes are. Egungun Masquerade costumes are usually a product of a variety of carefully selected fabrics. The designs and permutations of the fabrics go to show the creativeness of the Yoruba. From exquisite and quality samples of local handwoven Aso Oke (topmost handwoven fabric of the Yoruba) to exotic, high-class fabrics, Egungun costumes are made from local and imported fabrics from different corners of the world.
How are they made?
The selected fabrics represent the best that money can buy and would normally include extra adornments in form of Velvet (Aran), Silk, Damask, Lace, and Cotton. They also usually have a touch of Ankara, otherwise commonly known outside Nigeria as African print. The fabrics would first be arranged into aligning strips or panels of decorated sashes—ooja— similar to those used by mothers in wrapping babies on their backs. More than the aesthetic benefits, the costumes serve to reference the popular and mythic history of Egungun Masquerade, and the old times of collaboration between Eesa Ogbin Ologbojo, who was the eponymous ancestor of Yoruba sculptors, and the queen mother, Erubami Abimbowo, who created the first ensemble at the time of Alaafin Abiodun Adegoriolu (1770–1789).
Every year, the owner of an Egungun masquerade costume adds a piece of new fabric to the layers. The number of levels of cloth worn serves to indicate the number of years a costume has actively performed. The purpose of using expensive clothes, exquisite fabrics and bright, imported paints is to highlight the sumptuousness of the world of the Yoruba ancestor. As a result, you can easily tell the age of a masquerade upon examining the clothes used and by noting the number of layers involved, since it is not unusual for new clothes to be added each year. If a costume has been used for decades, the bottom layer would usually reveal handwoven fabrics such as very old indigo-dyed cloth, whereas the more recent outer layers will mostly be of machine-made cloth, including Velvet and others. Cowrie shells as symbols of wealth are used to frame both sides of the masquerade’s head. They are adorned in horizontal rows, just below the face and descend way down in parallel columns at the front of the costume. The wealth, fame and status of the family, as well as the power of the ancestors, are celebrated with this traditional assemblage of materials.
What influences the creation of the designs?
With each fabric made in eye-pleasing decorative patterns, forms, shapes and colours, the meticulously arranged fabrics and adornments must follow the well-established conventions of times past. This is best described as the conventions that represents the treasured values of Egungun traditions, or asa. Asa is a Yoruba term that represents a conscious attempt “to select, choose, discriminate, or discern” (Yai, 1994) while being well aware of the historical past.
Quite logically, artists-priests-devotees in the past used their oju ona (design consciousness) alongside their oju inu (inner eye or artistic insight and sensibility) as well as laakaye (intuitive knowledge) plus imoju-mora (unusual sensitivity) to make deliberate choices (Abiodun, 1989; Lawal, 1996) in the selection of colours, shapes, patterns, and designs. This dynamic artistic process is a constantly inventive, modern and revitalizing one. The result of the rigorous process is that the cloth panels come in a multiplicity of designs, looks, patterns, hues, tones, shapes, and colours. The result proves to be a curious blend of disparate elements of various materials, fully reflective of the multidimensional vision, insight and power of the departed ancestors. Another intriguing and creative approach to the Egungun costumes are the quilted fabrics forms with multiple layers of both old and new materials, including amuletic pouches, pebbles, gourds, and leather as well as metal adornments believed to be empowering items. By the tradition, to deviate from these well-established models (asa) is tantamount to contravening the widely recognized conventions—a scenario best likened to an outright aberration, one that fits into the mould of nuisance and absurdity, commonly referred to as asakasa.
|Egungun costumes made in colourful and fancy fabrics|
Importance of cloth to the Yoruba
In Yorubaland, cloth (aso) is the prime symbol and indicator of sophistication and the index of power and social identity. This Yoruba aphorism puts it even more clearly: Bi o ba si owu, oni ruuru idi la bari (Without cotton [cloth], we’d be exposed with our most intimate vulnerabilities) (Babalola, 1967). Yorubas regard appearance as an essential part of any human and that it defines individuals in society. A person's appearance(clothe) can tell a lot about their identity, social status, background and roles within the larger community. According to Rowland Abiodun, “One’s social unit is often described metaphorically as one’s clothes, because it protects, beautifies, and hints at immortality.” It is an expression of the “cloth that never dies.” Indeed, Yorubas celebrate the place of cloth and appearance as the most appropriate indicator and marker of our collective human identity. As the wise French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire once said, “Fabrics speak a silent language”; The universal significance of clothes and their applicability might sometimes look culturally inclined, but in reality, it extends to the entire gamut of our collective human experience. Though it bears no voice, cloth yet speaks in complex, multisensorial fashions that everyone around us can feel