Gelede Masks – The Ultimate Spectacle

October is Black History Month, with colourful events taking place across Manchester and throughout the UK. This is a great opportunity for recognition and celebration, and it is also a time for reflection;

“Black History Month is a time when we can be thankful for the huge progress made in the UK over recent decades in tackling racist attitudes, increasing diversity, and improving equality of opportunity – while of course recognising that we still have much further to go.” – Theresa May, Prime Minister

Today’s post is by Bryony from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are each sharing our passion and  interest in the museum and its objects.

The Living Cultures collection at Manchester Museum is a perfect starting place to celebrate diversity and to explore the stories of objects and their source and diaspora communities. For more about the Living Cultures Gallery at Manchester Museum, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Mancultural.

Gelede masks

Ek’abo! That’s Yoruba for welcome, because today’s blog post is about some of the Yoruba objects we have on display. For those of you who don’t know, the Yoruba people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, based mostly in Nigeria, but also in neighbouring countries. That means there are about 43 million people – the same as the population of Portugal.

We have quite a few objects from the Yoruba people, and from Nigeria as a whole, not least because Frank Willett (Keeper of the Department of Ethnology and General Archaeology, Manchester Museum, 1950-58), had a particular passion for the country, visiting to collect objects in the field and research the cultures. He was the Nigerian Federal Government’s Honorary Surveyor of Antiquities during his time at Manchester, and moved to Nigeria immediately after to curate at the Ife Museum in Nigeria, continuing his work also with the Nigerian Federal Government’s Department of Antiquities. That’s quite a pedigree!

Some of our Nigerian objects – a large southern Ibibio palm wine pot, a sacrifice-encrusted figurine of the one-legged wood spirit Aroni from the Yoruba people, and some Ibeji figures, representing the lost half of the soul from a split pair of twins, also from the Yoruba.  Living Cultures Gallery, Manchester Museum.

We also have a number of Gelede masks. These are a very important part of Yoruba culture because they are part of the spectacle to celebrate (and placate) womankind. It is danced every year to honour the powers particularly of the female ancestors and elderly women, who are known as awon iya wa (‘our mothers’) in this society.

Gelede masks. Left, from the Living Cultures Gallery, and right, from the Manchester Gallery at Manchester Museum.

The full ritual is very involved, spanning both day and night and having many ritualised aspects and characters involved in the dance. The Yoruba see the powers of women as being similar to gods or spirits, so the Gelede festival is danced exclusively by men, with masks showing male and female roles. It often takes place in a marketplace, seen as the domain of women as they control trade. It is danced once a year at least at the beginning of the growing season for crops, but may also be danced in times of drought or disease. The powers of women can be for the great benefit of individuals or communities, or they can cause its end.

The masks will often have various animals or symbolic elements on the head, such as these, which have a pangolin (also known as a scaly anteater) on each. This weird creature is often used as medicine, and its scales can be added to charms. The structure above the face, which must be blank and calm to show the composure that women are expected to possess, is a way of showing the patient mask on the outside, while the structure above represents the powers behind the composure; the marks on the face are ‘tribal marks’ or pele, which show what group of the Yoruba the bearer belongs to – the masks are sometimes a normal face colour, but are sometimes brightly painted to make the pele stand out. Traditionally, these were scars added to the face.

Gelede masks with pangolin or ‘scaly anteaters’ on top – pangolin scales have uses as amulets. Gelede mask from Living Cultures Gallery, and a pangolin from Nature’s Library Gallery, Manchester Museum.

A more usual motif is anything that can fly – birds are a common choice, but there are examples recorded of more unusual symbols, such as planes! Birds are associated with the mothers because they are seen to have similar spiritual powers, and the ability to travel great distances with ease – they are also seen as being able to transform into birds at night to exercise their powers. What these symbols mean specifically depends on the bird – hornbills, for example, are seen as having a coffin-shaped beak that can deliver death to your doorstep, whereas pigeons deliver goodness, good luck and devotion.

Left, red-and-white bird devouring snake mask, Living Cultures gallery, Manchester Museum. Right, Gelede mask with plane, showing one of the more bizarre examples of this tradition (Image from:

In case you have been reading and wondering how such a weirdly-shaped mask fits over the face … well, it doesn’t. The reasoning behind this ritual is to entertain and satirise gender roles as well as the important function of appeasing the ‘mothers’, and it isn’t seen as important to conceal the wearer’s identity beneath the mask. These are instead worn at the front of the top of the head, with women’s clothes and scarves making the ideal voluptuous form of a woman below – the cloth covering the face is usually quite transparent to enable the dancer to see.

This tradition is disappearing, sadly – it has been replaced by Mother’s Day across much of the Yoruba lands. Because of that, and because of its significance, it has been placed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (these are the same people that designate and protect World Heritage sites). This means that there has been funding allocated for projects to raise awareness, running workshops about the various aspects of Gelede within the communities that will be carrying on the tradition and there have been radio campaigns to encourage people to become interested and take part. With these efforts, the future of the Gelede tradition is looking strong – good news for the communities that still place great importance on this magnificent tradition.

After all, oju to ba ri Gelede ti de opin iran! (The eyes that have seen Gelede have seen the ultimate spectacle!)

Bryony Rigby

 Black History Month in the UK is the entire month of October.

P.S. Want to find out more?


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