In the yearly masquerade performed by the Gelede tribe of Yorubaland (in modern-day Nigeria) older Yoruba women were referred to as both “our mothers” and “witches”–nurturers and destroyers.

“The female presence was seen as a very powerful one in African societies,” says Jessica Stephenson ’00G, associate curator of African and Ancient American Art. “These ceremonies were meant to honor their power and to invoke the protection of the spirits.”

Female masks from Nigeria, the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are on display in the Michael C. Carlos Museum’s third floor Sutker Galleries, a renovated space that will be devoted to displaying items from the museum’s permanent collection of West and Central African art.

The masks portray a wide representation of female beauty and spirituality–decorative scars, elongated necks, condensed features. As in Elizabethan plays or Greek dramas, many were worn by male dancers impersonating women.

“The males also wore [body] costumes with female attributes, like fake breasts, and dance movements such as the swaying of the hips were exaggerated,” Stephenson says.

The Sande tribal masks, however, were worn by women during the initiation of young girls into womanhood. “They were worn at harvest time, during fertility rituals, and at ceremonial plays,” Stephenson says. Some of the rituals were quite serious, others were more for entertainment, with the masks styled accordingly.

One regal mask has an elaborate hair weaving designed to mimic the British crown, from the period when Sierra Leone was a colony of England. In another, a braid merges with a snake, meant to symbolize a water spirit coming to claim his bride. The deep ebony shine of the wood evokes water, and the masks were repainted often to maintain their luster.

The male presence is not altogether missing from the exhibit: a Mande tribal hunting jacket is included, decorated with wild boar tusks, raptor claws, and antelope horns as protective amulets and to signify the hunter’s prowess.

“The jacket was too heavy to wear while hunting, but he would wear it during festivals or ceremonies,” Stephenson says. “Basically, the hunter was wearing his curriculum vitae, his whole professional biography.”–M.J.L.

The Michael C. Carlos Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday evenings until 9. It is closed Monday and University holidays. The museum is on the Quadrangle, near the main campus entrance off North Decatur Road. Visitor parking is available nearby. Admission is a $5 donation.



© 2003 Emory University