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MASQUERADE COSTUME
egungun
 
Yoruba peoples, Nigeria
20th century
Fabric, plastic, mirror, aluminum, beads, and coins
63 x 46 x 18 inches (160 x 116.8 x 45.7 cm)
Collection Friends of the Neuberger Museum of Art
Purchase College, State University of New York
Museum Purchase with funds provided by
The African Art Council of the Neuberger Museum of Art (EL 01.2001.01)
 
Provenance:
Gail Martin, New York, 2001
 
 
One meaning of Egungun, “concealed powers of the ancestor” (Drewal, 1989: 177), alludes to the masquerade’s commemorative function. During funerals, annual and bi-annual festivals honoring the spirits of departed kings, founders, and leaders of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, many Egungun masqueraders, accompanied by drummers and family members, dance for, parade in front of, or simply entertain those around them. They all come together toward the end of the festival, which may last from several days to three weeks.
 
The Egungun masking tradition is still practiced today among the Yoruba peoples and  their descendants in the African Diaspora, particularly in Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, and the United States. Besides acting as a visible manifestation of the ancestral spirits, Egungun masks fulfill other functions among the Yoruba people: while some regulate judicial matters and mediate between the world of the living and the world of the dead, others simply entertain the community. 

The most striking feature of Egungun masqueraders is their dazzling costumes made of many layers of bright and disparate cloths, decorated with glass beads, mirrors, and medals. The costumes swirl open as the masqueraders dance and perform intricate steps. The colorful ensemble not only provides an extraordinary spectacle for the community but displays the wealth and status of the family that commissioned the costume.
   
Central to Egungun masquerade is the symbolic role of cloth that “conveys meaning and magic” (Thompson, 1974: 219) and is recalled in several myths. One such myth recounts the tale of three sons who did not give their father a proper burial: when the eldest son was presented with a wife, he was unable to bear a child with her. When the wife eventually does gives birth, it is to the hybrid child of a gorilla that forced itself upon her. She returns to her husband, who takes her to the local diviner. The diviner recommends that proper funeral rights be performed for the deceased father, whose sprit will rematerialize in an elaborate costume, and that the hybrid child be placed on the back of the performer to represent the father’s hunchback (Drewal, 1992: 92).
 
Another myth about the origin of the Egungun has its roots in the story of an epidemic that covered victim’s bodies in red spots, killing thousands. A diviner tells the afflicted to carry three red cloths (eku) to a place of sacrifice. When the carriers of the cloth arrive, they encounter the spirits of the disease, who flee at the sight of the red cloths.  The red cloths come to be incorporated into the costume of the Egungun to ward off evil (Thompson, 1974: 219) 
 
A final myth recounts the power of the three original red cloths of the Egungun, which had the ability to terrorize both witches and the forces of disease. Because of these abilities, the cloths  wrapped the corpses of important elders, whose bodies would then rise up as Egungun (Thompson, 1974: 219). 
 
 
 
Bibliography:
Drewal, John Henry et al. Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought. New York: Harry  N. Abrams Inc., 1989.
 
Thompson, Robert Farris. African Art in Motion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.
 
 
Updated: 5/8/12
 
 
 
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