"CATALOGUING A MYSTERY: A YORUBA EGUNGUN"
by Molly Greenfield
The Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection has in its holdings a wide variety of African textiles including woven, Berber pillow covers from Morocco, pounded, metal shawls from Egypt, kasai velvet made by the Kuba of Zaire, and lengths of brightly colored kente strip cloth from Ghana. Here, I explore the life of one object from these holdings, an agba Egungun masquerade costume made by the Yoruba people of Nigeria, West Africa, its past, present and future.
Figure 1. Engungun Ibadan Nigeria, Yoruba people, HLATC 2004.1.1
This recently acquired costume, its cultural importance and meanings within the Yoruba culture will be the vehicle through which I will explore the role of cloth by the Yoruba people. By examining the egungun tradition I will ultimately situate the masquerade and the materials used to construct it in a wider circle of practice and understanding involving the use of cloth in various Yoruba cultural practices. Firstly, I will provide a brief introduction into the egungun tradition and the spiritual cosmology of the Yoruba. I will then discuss other cultural traditions which feature cloth as central figure including dance and dress traditions. Once I have placed the egungun tradition within the Yoruba’s culture of cloth, I proceed by discussing the specificities of the particular Egungunin the HLATC including its materials, provenance and history. In essence, this paper hopes to serve as not only a curatorial record, but as a story of detective work which work documenting a journey of discovery about an object.
Yoruba Cosmology and the Egungun Tradition
In order to understand the importance of this object, one must first place egungun within the larger cultural and religious practices of the Yoruba people. As discussed by Henry Drewal et. al in Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, the Yoruba believe in a cosmos that is divided into two portions which are distinct in nature but inevitably connected. The aye is considered “the world of the living.” This world is characterized by visibility and the tangible. This world is often visited by elements of orun, or the “otherworld.” Olodumare is thought to be the “creator” who inhabits this world along with other forces such as orisa (gods), ara orun (ancestors) and oro, iwin, ajogun and egbe (various spirits). The synthesis and relationship between these two worlds and the human and supernatural forces that inhabit each can be understood in the Yoruba saying “The world is the marketplace [we visit], the otherworld is home.”
I will focus my discussion of the Yoruba cosmos on the role of the ancestors (ara orun) and gods (orisa) and their connection to the egungun masquerades. Before proceeding, it is important to examine the terminology I use to discuss this masking tradition thereby clarifying the relationship of the masking tradition to the ancestors and gods of the Yoruba cosmology. The words “egungun” and “Egungun” have often been used interchangeably in literature relating to this tradition. In Drewal’s “The Arts of Egungun among the Yoruba People,” the author describes the difference between the two terms. While the term “egungun” refers to any masquerade or masking practice, “Egungun” denotes the specific masking tradition among the Oyo Yoruba where it is believed that the practice originated. According to Drewal, the term “egungun,” the broader of the two, it thought to refer to the concept of the “powers concealed” and can relate to practices which work to both honor ancestors and gods, both of which are considered “beings from beyond.” “Egungun” has been more explicitly associated with the honoring of the ancestors in particular, the Egungun society and “a descendant’s commitment to continuing the traditions of his predecessors and maintaining the reputation of his lineage.”
In this way, the egungun tradition can be understood as masking tradition which works to both honor ancestors and gods whereas the Egungun among the Oyo has been specifically linked to ancestor honoring in particular. I will use the term “Egungun” to refer to the object in the HLATC (Accession number 2004.1.1) as I believe it comes from the city of Ibadan which Drewal classifies within the category of masquerades found among Oyo sub-ethnic groups in Oyo, Ibadan, and Osun provinces. I will elaborate on how I arrived at the provenience in a later section.
Within this geographical region, many types of Egungun exist. Marilyn Houlberg identifies the following categories: 1) onidan “owner of miracles” Egungun which Thompson categorizes as “trickster” or satirical masquerades and 2) paka Egungun that can be recognized by their “horizontal superstructure consisting of a piece of wood about 1.2 to 1.5 meters in length from which colorful appliquéd panels are suspended.” For the purposes of this study, I will refer to the object (HLATC 2004.1.1) as an “agba Egungun.” The word “agba” meaning “senior” or “big” Other types of egungun predominate in regions outside of Oyo, but in the interest of limiting the study to the geographically relevant area, I will discuss these types, discussed thoroughly by Drewal in The Fabrics of Culture.
Agba Egungun, not unlike paaka Egungun, are characterized by their multi-layered, brightly colored lappets or strips of cloth with saw-toothed edging attached to a sculptural headdress made of wood and cloth but lacking the horizontal superstructure which characterizes the paaka Egungun. The headpiece can vary greatly even within the Oyo region and can include figural carvings, such as human or animal forms as well as more abstract carved forms. Attached to the headpiece is a body suit which completely covers the performer and is most often made of aso oke or strip woven indigo cloth locally produced and usually hand woven. The cloth comprising the lappets is commonly a mix of imported cloths from Europe, America and sometimes even Southeast Asia imported to and sometimes produced for the African textile market. Common fabrics include velvet thought in Yorubaland to be “the epitome of good taste” (aran tii pari aso) and damask considered “the royal, gold-threaded cloth that has a strong metallic sheen in sunlight” (mosaaji aso oba tii tanna yanranyanran), as related in Abiodu , Beier and Pemberton. Other physical characteristics include a white and black knotted mesh face panel through which the performer can see, the use of medals, cowry shells and buttons to adorn particularly the area surrounding the knotted mesh, and the use of medicinal packets or amulets attached to the costume.
As Pemberton discusses inYoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, the masquerades’ construction, like the worshipping of the ancestor itself, is made possible through a wide network of family and community involvement. While the ensemble is meant to honor the ancestor, it also speaks about the patron and family who finance the construction of the masquerade: “For the Yoruba the ancestral ensembles are designed to disclose the presence and power of the living dead and also the status and filial piety of the ‘owner’ of an egungun.” In this way, the ensemble reflects the wealth, status and alliances of a particular family telling us as much about the living as the dead it is meant to honor.
An egungun is often created through a divination process whereby an individual learns that a deceased relative requires that an egungun is created. The individual will collaborate with a masquerade maker to decide on the appropriate type which may or may not be outlined through divination or meditation. Every detail must be decided upon including the types of fabric to be used, the amulets and medicinal packets to be included on the masquerade, and whether a carver needs to be commissioned to make a headpiece. Once the appropriate individuals have been commissioned including the carver and herbalist, the masquerade will be constructed. Once constructed, the masquerade is taken to the Egungun society where the necessary rites will be performed and where it will be decided who dances in that particular ensemble. Finally, the egungun is named.
One important aspect of the costume which manifests in its design and construction is the role that the cloth plays in concealing the performer. The masquerader is completely concealed throughout the dance including their face, hands and legs. In fact, word “egungun” means “powers concealed.” Concealment of the performer has deep rooted meanings which are bound up in commonly held notions of the relationship between secrecy and power among the Yoruba people:
It is significant that cloth is the material that literally covers the whole body and metaphorically prevents the masker’s ‘secrets’ and mortality from being revealed in public. Even if someone knows the identity of the masker, as a few in the crowd inevitably would, it is forbidden to reveal it in public.
In this way, the role of concealment, both literally of the performer and metaphorically of the spirit, ancestors and the secrets that contribute to their powers, are central to what egungun is at its core. This, along with other objects such as beaded, veiled crowns worn by royalty, highlight the important relationship between concealment, secrecy and power that the Yoruba hold central in their belief system.
Odun Egungun festivals are held annually or biennially throughout the Oyo Yoruba area or as needed on important family occasions including a death, familial conflict or sickness. The festival involves not only the costume itself but dancing, drumming and singing or chanting of particular verses. Just as many members of the community are involved in its initial production, the community participates in the Egungun festival where one or more Egungun will perform. Masqueraders and drummers are exclusively men although women actively participate in the singing or chanting of verses.
As Aremu states, when not used, Egungun are stored in safe places, both in terms of their physical preservation as well as in an effort to safeguard their spiritual properties: “It is a sign of honor to keep these costumes safe from all external negative tendencies. Rituals are also performed; these vary according to the accepted norms governing the well-being of the costumes.” The storage of costumes can relate explicitly to the materials used to construct the costumes themselves showing a sensitivity to and awareness of materials, their properties and their storage solutions: “Sometimes, the costume is hung after the festivity on a stand made of the ahun tree. This is known as langanga since, in most cases, ahun wood is used for mask carving.”
Power in Cloth
The Yoruba have a rich material culture landscape and history. They have produced and continue to make some of the most widely appreciated art in the world. Among their renowned skills, is their ability to produce varied and intricately designed cloth such as adire (cassava paste and indigo print and dye method) and aso oke (strip woven indigo cloth). In this section, I will discuss the way in which textiles are used in Yoruba dress and dance and relate these practices to that of the egungun masquerade traditions.
A common saying in Yorubaland is “Asp la riki ki a to ki eniyan” or “It is the cloth we should greet before greeting the wearer.” This saying illustrates that in some contexts the cloth that the person wears is more important than the physical attractiveness of the person themselves. It also indicates that one’s importance or status is tangibly linked the garments they wear and cloth they possess.
Clothing such as the agbada and the dandogo are excellent examples of the importance of cloth and its use in clothing in Yoruba culture. An “agbada," is a large, voluminous garment made from strip woven cloth worn by men. It is made from many strips of cloth sewn together with armholes extending past the natural length of the arm which are then folded up onto the shoulders, allowing the excess to flow down on the sides (See Figure 1). HLATC has two agbada in its holdings.
The dandogo is a larger version of the agbada. The term “dandogo” derives from the Hausa word “dogo” meaning to “grow larger.” The theme of becoming larger through clothing is what Beverly Gordon describes as the “big cloth equals big man” phenomenon whereby clothing is used to not only enhance physical stature but also personal and social status of a given man. Drewal discusses this idea by noting that clothing is said to add (buyi kun) to the person and, in Yoruba fashions, it literally does.
A garment in which the use of cloth closely mirrors that of the egungun masquerade is the gbariye dandogo, the cloth “with pleats” worn by traditional dancers in Yorubaland: The gold and indigo strips are cut and sewn together (pleated and tapered) so that the skirt flares, extending into the surrounding space, forming almost a full circle, revealing the dancer’s feet and trousered legs. The dancer whirls, bending forward at times so that the skirt undulated, revealing the contrasting colors of the cloth’s lining. It is the cloth, not the dancer, that is the center of attention; and those standing nearby invariably feel the movement of the air as the dancer whirls before them and the cloth comes alive.
Figure 2. Agbada, Nigeria, Yoruba people, HLATC 1994.12.1
When one compares this image and description with that of the egungun, the similarities are striking (Figure 2): The senior bata drum sounds the phrase, titiketike, which the junior drum repeats, and suddenly the Egungun image is whirling with all his might, the cloths about his body blowing in the wind…The other Egungun uses all his power in performance. As soon as the drums start, he begins to dance, all his cloths swirling like a violent breeze. One can see how the use of cloth and the cultural sensitivity to its spiritual and physical properties is echoed again and again in Yoruba ritual settings.
What is central in both dances incorporating gbariye dandogo and egungun masquerade is not only the abundance and use of cloth but the swirling motions and the resulting wind created in both performances. As Thompson suggests, the creation of wind through the movement of cloth, particularly in the egungun tradition is related the myth surrounding Oya, the goddess of whirlwinds and her role as the wife of Shango, the Thundergod. What is exhibited in both gbariye dandogo and egungun are the “essential elements: cloth, wind and power.”
The importance placed on cloth, particularly in its use in Egungun masquerades, draws from myths and beliefs surrounding the practice. Folklore suggests that cloth, particularly red cloth, has apotropaic qualities and that it was once used to ward off disease and epidemics. Even the saw-tooth borders known as igbala, which edge the lappets has ties to this myth. It is believed that Shango, the Thundergod, was spared from the epidemic because his followers used red cloth with saw-tooth edging to ward off the sickness: “The word, igbala, means: ‘something that saves a person.” In this way, cloth is believed to have immortal and powerful properties that when combined with song, dance and ceremony, can affect the lives of the Yoruba people.
The immortal properties associated with Egungun inevitably have ties to the fact that the Egungun performer and their costume acts as a bridge between the worlds of the living and the dead, both by invoking ancestral spirits as well as through the use of cloth closely associated with funeral rites and shrouds. The Yoruba believe that “we were born wearing cloth.” Furthermore, the close link between cloth and immortality can be found expressed in divination poetry explicitly connecting cloth with the creator, Olodumare:
Young ones never hear the death of cloth,
Cloth only wears to shreds.
Old ones never hear the death of cloth,
Cloth only wears to shreds.
Young ones never hear the death of Olodumare,
Cloth only wears to shreds.
Old ones never hear the death of Olodumare
Cloth only wears to shreds.
Through these links, one can see the explicit connection the Yoruba make between cloth and lifecycle, their cosmos and power. Understanding these connections is fundamental in terms of examining Egungun and their meaning.
Cataloging the Facts
The HLATC Egungun 2004.1.1 is one of two such masquerades in the collection’s holdings. The egungun ensemble acquired in 1992 (HLATC 1992.9.1) has been researched and exhibited (Figure 3). I chose to look closely at Egungun 2004.1.1 as it had not been catalogued or researched. The object came to the collection via donation with no information other than that it had been purchased by the donor in 1992 from Alajen Jawarn of Nigeria. I approached the study of this object through the act of cataloging according to HLATC procedure.
Figure 3. HLATC 2004.1.1
The object is 74 inches long and weighs approximately 40-45 pounds. The materials used in the construction of the object include cloth, string, thread, wood, plant materials, rubber, and aluminum. The object’s base is comprised of a body suit with arms and mittens as well as legs and feet (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Detail of leg and foot, Egungun, HLATC 2004.1.1
This construction completely conceals the appendages of the masquerader. This body suit is made of aso oke (strip woven indigo cloth made locally) and red cotton flannel (most likely imported and of European origin.) The arms and mittens are constructed using aso oke and are adorned with strips of imported cotton cloth sew onto the base at various points. The legs and feet are constructed from imported velvet, polyester knit and woven cotton with bicycle or inner tube rubber used as soles.
The second layer of the costume is comprised of 46 large lappets originating from the shoulder area. 87 smaller lappets encircle the headpiece which is round with sixteen ribs or ridges emanating from a wooden projection at the center (Figure 8). Both the large lappets and the small lappets are multilayered in that they are sewn on top of one another at various points and are sometimes three or four lappets deep. Both sizes of lappets feature saw-tooth edging around their perimeters. Below the headpiece is a rectangular area comprised of black and white knotted, cotton mesh through which the masker would see around them. Two strings of cowry shells hang on either side of the mesh area. Adorning the striped fabric which flanks the mesh are white, glass buttons. Discs of aluminum are attached to lappets surrounding mesh area through a puncture mark in the top portion of the disc.
The costume is constructed using both hand and machine stitching with the more recently added lappets showing evidence of machine stitching and the older lappets showing evidence of hand stitching. There are over 300 different types of cloth used to construct the lappets, body suit and saw-tooth edging including printed cottons (commemorative prints, wax prints, calicos) velvets, brocades, cotton flannel, canvas, faux velvet, velveteen, upholstery fabric (naugahyde), polyester blend prints, crochet samples and aso oke. The lappets are backed with a variety of fabrics including commemorative prints, wax prints, calicos and aso oke. Judging by the ages of these fabrics, I determined that the costume was most likely constructed in the early 1930’s and in use with lappets continually added to the ensemble throughout the mid to late 1970’s.
Cataloging the Mystery
The next step and some would argue, the most crucial, is determining provenance of an object. This is a particular challenge with an object like the Egungun because of the use of imported cloth in its construction and the continual refreshing of the cloth layers creating an object which has multiple time and place trajectories. The gap in literature about imported cloth and industrially produced cloth in Africa further contributes to the problem of determining provenance making it nearly impossible to trace the histories of individual types of cloth used on an Egungun.
The search for provenance took me on a winding journey where I learned more about the object than I ever thought I would. My first step was to research Egungun in other collections and contact experts in the field regarding these objects. My first and obvious contact was to consult with Henry Drewal about the object. During the meeting, I learned the symbolism behind construction details including the medicinal roll or bar attached below the knotted mesh panel, the projection from the top of the headpiece thought to represent a “cock’s comb” and the significance of the sixteen ribs or ridges representing “the sixteen Odun of Ifa.” Henry Drewal also noted that the ensemble had a “warrior’s feel” with the encrustation of headpiece, the use of the medicinal bar and the “cock’s comb” representation. He felt it might be from Oyo or somewhere in Northern Yorubaland but thought it would be difficult to determine a city or exact location of origin.
While grateful for his help and expertise, he being the foremost expert in the field, I have to admit I felt the slightly desperate after this initial consultation. I had envisioned an “aha moment” where we would instantly discover the origin of this piece. Little did I know, the proverbial “eureka” would be so faraway. At this point, I thought it best to take a visual inventory of all the Egungun I could. I began with Google Image Search. Through this, I located a number of images, some museum objects, some not, that I began to research in a vain attempt to know more about the very object I was sitting in the same room with six hours a day.
My image search, while not yielding the hoped for results -- the provenance, did help me to understand the visual lexicon of the Egungun. I pursued three masquerades that I found through my search. These include Egungun in the following collections: Brighton Museum (UK), The North Carolina Museum of Art, and the de Young Museum. Each of these objects interested me in their similarity to the HLATC Egungun especially in terms of their use of color, fabric, patchwork, lappet placement, adornment. The fact that the two Egungun from North Carolina Museum of Art and the de Young Museum both fell within the same date range as the HLATC Egungun and were both from the Oyo region, helped to confirm my hypothesis about the date and Henry Drewal’s opinion that the masquerade was possibly from Oyo.
I found one final image that I thought held the key to this object’s secrets. It came from an online tutorial at the University of Manitoba. It is especially compelling because not only does it have similar fabrics used, as well as lappet and cowry placement as the HLATC Egungun but it also has a strikingly similar headpiece. Up until this point, I had not seen another headpiece in print or on the web which was similar to the headpiece of the HLATC Egungun. I contacted the necessary parties at the various collections. While it was wonderful to make contacts in the field, they unfortunately they did not yield the results I had hoped for -- my beloved provenance.
I had reached a point where I realized that no one was going to tell me the information I needed to know. I decided instead that I should look closely at the object again and that maybe, it would tell me what I hoped to learn. First, I uncovered the Egungun. When not in storage, the Egungun resides on a large work table in the collection, lappets splayed and covered with a large piece of muslin to protect it from the harmful properties of the light. I then began to move the lappets, looking at each one closely. I cannot explain why I did this. It simply seemed like the natural thing to do. It was this act that gave the Egungun its voice, which up to this point had seemed mute, unwilling to share its past with me.
I found three key samples of fabrics used in the lappets that not only told me the provenance of the object but also spoke about the object’s purpose and the spiritual and cultural values of the people that produced it. On the underside of one of the lappets, I located a wax print fabric that had the word “Ibadandun” incorporated in the Indonesian patterned design motif (Figure 9). In a conversation with Yomi Ola, the word opened up. Ibadan is a large city located in the Oyo region of Yorubaland. The suffix “dun” means “nice,” “happy,” or “pleasant.” The combination forms a word that refers to Ibadan is a nice, happy place. The fact that this fabric was used on the Egungun coupled with the stylistic similarities exhibited between the HLATC Egungun and the other Egungun from the Oyo region convinced me that it was constructed and used in Ibadan.
A common adire pattern from Ibadan, the center of adire production and sale in Yorubaland, is titled “Ibadandun.” The wax print fabric on the Egungun, while very different, employs the blues used in adire eleko. The use of the printed word “Ibadandun” not only invokes the meaning of the word in relationship to the cloth used on the Egungun, but also refers, whether intentionally or not, to the long legacy and tradition of adire within the region. Perhaps the ancestor the Egungun masquerade was constructed to honor was connected with adire trade or production.
Another significant fabric sample featured on the HLATC Egungun is a machine woven cloth sample which incorporates a child figure and the words “omo molere” (Figure 10). This saying, “children are benefits or rewards” is common in Yorubaland and shows how highly valued children are in their culture. Other examples of adire features a similar phrases such as, “A child is our reward in this world” (omo molere aiye). The use of such fabric on the HLATC Egungun could indicate that it was constructed recently after a child was born who was thought to be the reincarnation of the particular ancestor ensemble is honoring. It not only speaks to the value of children in Yoruba society but also their “place” in terms of young children’s connection to Odun and the participation of children in adult life and activities.
Finally, and perhaps the most striking cloth found on the HLATC Egungun, is a machine woven cloth with the words “asiri a bo” meaning “may your secrets be concealed” machine embroidered on the surface (Figure 11). As discussed earlier, the importance of concealment is central in the egungun tradition. Concealment is a theme expressed in many Yoruba works of art and cultural traditions, not only that of the Egungun. The fact that this fabric is on the HLATC Egungun further emphasizes this point. This lappet is placed on the front center of the Egungun and is sew over other lappets. Both the words and meaning associated with this fabric, as well as the placement of the lappet featuring the fabric, point to its obvious importance in terms of this particular object as well as in the egungun tradition in general.
Cataloging with all the Senses
My true engagement with this object began only when I stopped looking for answers elsewhere and began to engage the object at a deeper level. Looking closely at an object with all of the senses of touch, sight and hearing, is a practice learned not only through material culture analysis research methods but also through years of museum work helped me to realize that an object, especially one as multilayered as the Egungun, is a way of revealing valuable insights about its former lives and history.
There are two layers of engagement which are important in understanding this object. Drawing from Suzanne Preston Blier’s “Ways of Experiencing African Art: The Role of Patina,” I will refer to these two layers as the “literal patina of engagement” and the “metaphorical patina of engagement.” Whereby an object can acquire a literal patina referring to “a spectrum of traits that provide evidence of an object’s history” it can also acquire metaphorical patina: The possible Latin root of patina, pati, “to suffer,” suggests that the damage or marking associated with such use may carry metaphoric properties. As both a process and a metaphor, patina offers a provocative frame from which to address the myriad ways in which elements outside an original work of African art (and sometimes the intent of the artist) impact on how the object is experienced and what it comes to mean. I use this concept as a model to think about the great number of individuals who had or will have a relationship and sensate engagement with our Egungun. The literal patina of engagement is comprised of the object’s maker (both of the individual cloth and fabric samples as well as the maker of the actual masquerade ensemble), the owner or patron, the priest of divination, the herbalist, the performers (singers, masquerader, drummers), the spectators from the community and of course, the ancestor who the masquerade is meant to honor. The metaphoric patina of engagement includes the dealer or seller, the buyer or donor, the researcher, the museum and collections staff and finally the visitor who views the object.
Thinking about all those who engaged and will engage with the object along its life journey helps me to understand not only the life of the object but the individuals, each of whom connects with it through his or her own cultures and beliefs. This engagement, both at the literal and metaphoric levels, forms a picture of the object in terms of its affiliations, associations and experiences that helps us to understand the life it has led and the new life it is beginning by entering a public museum or collection.
After completing this project, I view my position as a researcher and museum professional in a new and ultimately more meaningful light. As a producer of knowledge about and interpreter for the object, it is my responsibility to present its lives as accurately and wholly as possible for both those who created it and those who hope to learn about its many layers.
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