Egungun costume

Yoruba peoples
Late 20th century
more object details

General Description

An example of the paaka-type, this Egungun masquerade costume is composed of two wooden frames, one above the other, from which layers of appliqué velvet and sequined cotton panels are suspended. The lower frame, which is supported on the wearer's head, holds a carved wooden lion—a traditional Yoruba symbol of valor. The cowrie shell-embroidered face panel allows visibility, while "juju" elements attached beneath it provide supernatural protection during the performance. (See 2008.99.2).

The lappets on the costume are decorated with animal motifs formed with colorful sequins, each topped with a tiny glass bead, sewn onto rectangular cloth panels and edged with saw-tooth cut fabric. Called igbala in the Yoruba language, "saw-tooth border" means "something that saves a person" and refers to a myth about the Shango, the first king of the Oyo-Yoruba kingdom who was deified as the god of thunder. It also refers to the power of red cloth. According to the myth, Shango was spared from an epidemic because his followers used red cloth with saw-tooth edging to ward off the sickness.

The colorful sequined and beaded panels are decorated with animal motifs. The animals include rams, felines, birds (both vultures and eagle-like ones), lions, and elephants, which are ancient Yoruba emblems of royal power and, in the case of vultures, sacrifice. The panels are arranged to create a symmetrical composition. A scholarly comment about the symmetry of the panels on the Dallas Museum of Art's multi-layered Egungun masquerade costume (1995.35) may be applied to this one: when the dancer twirls and spins, the panels fly away from the body in all directions and resemble a whirlwind, making it difficult to recognize individual panels. In the midst of this chaos the symmetrical composition provides a sense of order. Through masked dancers, the ancestors spin and twirl around, causing the colorful panels of their costumes to fly out in all directions, giving "breezes of blessings" of prosperity, children, and good health.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, DMA unpublished material, 2008.

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