Among the Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria and Benin, the Gelede society of masks plays an important role in a rich culture of drama, masquerade, and poetry. Every year, from March to May, the society performs a series of ritual masquerades in homage to the spiritual power of women.
The powers of women, comparable to those of the gods, spirits, or ancestors, may be used for the benefit or destruction of society.
One of the objectives of the Gelede Society is to channel the specific power of women into a direction that is entirely conducive to the welfare of the group. Iya Nla, the ancestral mother, is believed both to nurture order and threaten stability in Yoruba communities. The Gelede ritual serves to identify and eliminate the negative aspects of female power and replace them with the more benevolent themes of fecundity, maternity and well-being.
When the nocturnal ceremonies for the “Soothing of the Mothers” have taken place and calm and order have returned, the Gelede masks enter the village square ready to perform. The masks are danced exclusively by male members of the secret cult, who entertain the village with a comedic farcical spectacle which has a more serious underlying function of social and spiritual control.
Elaborately dressed in vibrant costumes and crowned by masks representing characters from Yoruba folklore and everyday life, the puppet masks lightheadedly represent traditional proverbs. They lampoon white colonialists, prostitutes with large breasts and neighbouring tribes. They also spell out cautionary tales that instruct the crowd on the correct conduct in life. For example, the mask exposing a large carved wooden belly reminds young girls of the taboo of pregnancy out of wedlock.
Emerging from the sacred forest, the more elaborate Oru efe Gelede masks, with intricately carved wooden headpieces, depict powerful animals from the bush. They remind the community of the importance of respecting the natural order of the world. As they whirl around to the insistent rhythm of drums their flowing multi-layered costumes reflect the Yoruba belief that corpulence signifies abundance and dignity, thus providing a fitting tribute to the mother deity.