Annual festivals held throughout Yorubaland incorporate masquerades that celebrate the values and social roles upon which the well-being of the towns depend. The festival, called Epa (or Elefon) in Ekiti towns, is characterized by the appearance of large-scale wooden headdresses. The animals and humans carved on the superstructure of the headdress represent real or mythical ancestors who provide the foundation and continuity of Yoruba society. When more than one mask performs, the masks appear in a prescribed order. Oloko, who introduced farming and hunting, is the first mask to perform. He is followed by a warrior who carries a spear and a gun to defend the land and people; he may have been a founder or ruler of a town. Olosanyin, the priest of Osanyin and the god of herbal medicine, appears next. He has special knowledge of psychology and the ability to identify and use curative plants. Olosanyin is followed by a woman who is honored for her procreative powers or as the leader of the townswomen. The last to appear is a male ruler astride a horse.
Epa headdresses, which are carved from a single block of wood, can be quite tall and heavy. Each headdress consists of a pot-shaped helmet capped with a superstructure. The helmet portion features a stylized human face that fits over the head of the dancer, who looks through the mouth opening for visibility. The superstructure depicts a specific social role such as farmer, warrior, priest, mother, or king as indicated above. The size of the subject, which is always centered, dominates the composition in accordance with the Yoruba rules of social perspective. The costume, which is not meant to conceal the wearer’s body, consists of strips of cloth or fresh palm fronds suspended from the base of the headdress.
The Dallas mask is attributed to Oshamuko of Osi village. Apprenticed to the master artist Arowogun (Areogun) of Osi-Ilorin (Bowl with lid, 1984.57.A-B), Oshamuko produced his mature works from about 1920 to about 1950. The headdress portrays the bearded priest Olosanyin. In his right hand he grasps a wrought iron staff (opa orere) decorated with bird imagery; in his left, a chevron-patterned antelope horn supported by an attendant. Such horns were filled with powerful medicines used to cure physical or mental illnesses. The priest’s extraordinarily long hair is styled into a single braid and decorated with medicine gourd containers. The end of the braid rests on the heads of two musicians who play their instruments to herald the priest’s powers. In addition to demonstrating technical skill and insight into his subject, Oshamuko also shows great imagination (imoju-mora) in rendering the priest’s clothing as a dynamic form. Over each hip of the priest’s pants the sculptor carved knotted ends that he extended across the shoulders of two attendants to touch the medicine gourds each holds.
Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 142.