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Date: 1920-1950
Medium:Cotton, silk, and wool fabric, metal, leather, mirrors, cotton, and wood
Geographic Location: Nigeria
Dimensions: Height: 64 in. (1 m 62.56 cm) Width: 60 in. (1 m 52.4 cm) Depth: 12 in. (30.48 cm) On mount: 78 x 60 x 12 in. (1 m 98.12 cm x 1 m 52.4 cm x 30.48 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, Textile Purchase Fund
Object Number: 1995.35

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This Egungun [AY-guhn-guhn] costume from the Yoruba [YOUR-oo-buh] peoples of Nigeria transforms its wearer into a medium for the spirits of a family’s ancestors and the recently deceased during the annual Egungun masquerade. The wearer of the costume, as he is inhabited by a spirit, twirls and dances causing the costume’s panels to fly out and spin around him. This movement creates what some describe as “breezes of blessings” for other members of the community as they appeal to their ancestors for fertility, well-being, protection from harm, or the settlement of disputes.

 
This costume is made from various Nigerian and imported European textiles or cloths bound together with contrasting fabrics. It is decorated with small mirrors, metal forms, and buttons which catch the sunlight and glimmer as the dancer moves.

 


Materials

Death and Religion
African Masquerades
The Yoruba People
Cross-Cultural Interaction

 

Materials
 
This Egungun [AY-guhn-guhn] costume consists of Nigerian and European textiles including patterned cotton, cotton velveteen, silk, and wool cut into panels and bound together into layers that flair out during the Egungun masquerade. The reflective objects on the costume are mostly small, imported mirrors, coin-shaped metals, and shiny buttons which reflect the sun in different directions. All of the materials chosen are of the highest quality and price.  Traditionally, Yoruba [YOUR-oo-buh] families add a new layer of cloth to the costume each year to refurbish it before the festival.
 
Death and Religion

The expansive Yoruba pantheon consists of a collection of gods, deified royalty, nature spirits, and ancestors. Though their religion is complex, the Yoruba emphasize a close relationship with their deities during such ceremonies as the annual Egungun festival. The word Egungun roughly translates to “forces held within,” and during the festival, Yoruba men dress in masks and costumes and perform a dance, allowing the spirits of the dead to inhabit their bodies. Some events during the festival are public masquerades and others are private. 
 
Yoruba artists, in addition to creating Egungun costumes, also make and dedicate other objects such as masks, divination trays, brass and terracotta sculptures, beaded objects, and woven textiles to their gods.
 
Listen to Shannon Karol, DMA educator, describe the importance of ancestry in Africa.

African Masquerades

The masquerade, in many African cultures, is a ceremony which allows people to commune with, learn from, and be entertained by the spirits and ancestors which remain invisible to them in their day-to-day lives. During the masquerade, males of a community (or, in a few rare cases, females), are inhabited by the spirit of the mask they wear. These spirits have a number of different personalities. Some are entertaining while others are threatening or solemn. Some are silly while others are serious, and are used to educate children. The wearer of the mask is thought to become the mask’s spirit. Therefore, the identity of the person wearing a mask during a ceremony remains a secret.
 
Because masks are made of perishable organic materials like wood, fur, and feathers, most masks which have survived date from the nineteenth or twentieth century. When masks are damaged beyond repair, craftsmen create replicas of them and the spirit of the discarded mask finds a new home in its replacement.
 

The Yoruba Peoples


The Yoruba peoples are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa numbering nearly twenty-five million. They are made up of several different groups that speak the Yoruba language and inhabit large areas of Nigeria, the Republic of Benin, and Togo. All Yoruba trace their origins to the city of Ife in present-day Nigeria, which is the site where the world begins in the Yoruba creation story.

While the Yoruba economy is largely based on the agricultural production of such items as yams and cocoa, there is also a large and growing Yoruba presence in the populous cities of the region where more people are working as artisans and traders. Many Yoruba were relocated as slaves to Cuba and Brazil, where their influence on the language and culture is still apparent.
 
Yoruba-2011
 
 
Cross-Cultural Interaction

This Egungun costume, made in part from imported European textiles, provides a glimpse into the cross-cultural interaction between the Yoruba peoples and Europeans. Though the exact date of the costume’s original creation is unknown, researchers are able to estimate a range of dates based on European trade catalogues which show the approximate year when particular textiles included in the costume first appeared in Nigeria. 

One particular panel on this Egungun is especially descriptive of the interaction between Europeans and the Yoruba peoples. This panel, called a praise cloth, bears a repeated medallion pattern including the upside-down image of a white-wigged European man identified as “Lawyer Wells Palmer.” The Yoruba word adupe, or “thank you,” is printed opposite to Palmer’s image and suggests that someone was grateful to him. Wells Palmer was one of the lawyers who helped reinstate the King of Lagos who was deposed by the British in the 1920s.
 
Embedded Audio Player.
Listen to curator Roslyn Walker describe the discovery of the praise cloth.

 


Encouraging Dialogue

Making Connections


Encouraging Dialogue

 

1. How can masks and costumes change the identities of their wearers? How can masks and costumes change how others perceive the wearer? Why might this be important during an important ceremony or religious ritual?
 
2. Music and dance are important components to the Yoruba Egungun masquerade. Do you associate certain songs, instruments or types of music with certain rituals? How are the roles of music and dance in contemporary American ceremonies similar to or different from their roles in Yoruba ceremonies?
 
3. Ancestors play an important role in the lives of the Yoruba peoples. Describe ways ancestors are honored in your culture. Why do you think it is important that we know about our ancestors? What can we learn about ourselves through the study of our ancestry?
 
4. For members of many African communities, the trauma of death is mitigated by rituals which connect those on earth with the spirit world.  What rituals, associated with death, are practiced in America? What is the role of these rituals, and how are these rituals similar to or different from African rituals? Consider both religious and non-religious rituals.
 

Making Connections


1. This tatanua mask is worn during the malagan masquerade on the Pacific island of New Ireland as a way for a community to assure peace and prosperity following the death of an important leader. Compare the purpose of the tatanua to this Egungun costume.
 
2. Many layers of cloth panels of varying lengths comprise an Egungun costume.  Each year, new layers of panels are added to a costume, which reflects not only the status and wealth of the family whoe owns it, but also demonstrates the power of the ancestor.  Create a panel for an Egungun costume using a long strip of paper or fabric (a fourteen-inch panel cut lengthwise is a good size) to begin.  Decorate the panel with various materials, including felt, construction paper, aluminum foil, crayons, and markers.  Allow your decorations to reflect your life, status, or likes. 
 
3. Communication with the dead, through ghost stories, dream sequences, and flashbacks, is one of the most common plot devices in narrative literature and film. Find a passage in a book or a sequence in a film which describes communication with the dead and write an essay that considers how the reactions or attitudes of characters communicating with the dead compare with the Yoruba attitude towards the dead as embodied in the Egungun masquerade. Some possible examples include: Odysseus’ encounter with Tiresias and Anticleia in Book 10 of the Odyssey, Scrooge’s with Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, or Hamlet’s with his father in Hamlet.
 
4. Imagine you are present at an Egungun masquerade. In order to better understand the setting, write a series of sensory details. For instance : What do you hear? What do you see ? How might you describe the atmosphere? It might be helpful to consult the video of the Egungun masquerade under the Media/Resources tab. 
 
 


Audio
Video
Books
Websites

Map


Audio
   
Embedded Audio Player.
Listen to curator Roslyn Walker discuss this discovery of this praise cloth.
 
Embedded Audio Player.
Listen to museum educator Shannon Karol discuss ancestors in Africa.
 
Video
 
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Watch an Egungun masquerade.
 
Books
 
Reference Books:
 
Abiodun, Rowland, ed. The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Art. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian University Press, 1994.
 
Thompson, Robert F. African Art in Motion: Icon and Act in the Collection of Katherine Coryton White. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974.
 
Walker, Roslyn A. The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
 
Books for Students:
 
Musgrove, Margaret. Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions. Illus. Leo and Diane Dillon. New York: Dial Books, 1976.
 
Olaleye, Isaac. The Distant Talking Drum: Poems from Nigeria. Paintings by Lessac Frane. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong, 1995.
 
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. A is for Africa. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1993.
 
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. Chidi Only Likes Blue: An African Book of Colors. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1997.
 
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. Ebele's Favorit: A Book of African Games. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2001.
 
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. Emeka's Gift: An African Counting Story. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd., 1995.
 
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. Saying Goodbye: A Special Farewell to Mama Nkwelle. Brookfield, CT: The Brookfield Press, 2001.
 
Websites
 
This museum has an extensive collection of Yoruba art.

The Smithsonian Museum of African Art 
This museum's collection of Yoruba art includes an Egungun costume.
 
Minneapolis Institute of Art: 5 Facts… African Masks and Masquerades
This page contains facts about African masquerades. 
 
Map
 
Yoruba-2011

 

 

Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood.  Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging.  In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy.  Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.

 

  1. Consider the Museum Setting

Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions.  Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture.  These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects.  Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.

 

  1. Provide Context and Narrative

When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used.  Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today.  Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way. 

 

Equally important to context is geography.  Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures.  A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes. 

 

  1. Use Inclusive Language

Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases.  By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider.  Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.”  Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion.  Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.

 

  1. Carefully Select Vocabulary

When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures.  Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity.  Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc.  This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions. 

Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).

 

  1. Avoid Decontextualizing Activities

Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context.  Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context.  (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit)  Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied. 

 

  1. Find Common Connections

Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires.  We all seek to understand the world and our place within it.  Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples.  Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own.  While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion.  Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate. 

 

  1. Consider the Study of Cultures

In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely.  Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement.  This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures.  Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others. 

 

FURTHER READING

 

Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.

 

Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006. 

 

Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.

 

Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World.  Information Age Publishing, 2009.

 

Prothero, Stephen.  God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.  Harper One, 2010.

 

Prothero, Stephen.  Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t.  San Francisco: Harper, 2007.

 

Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.

 

Said, Edward.  Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.

 

“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”