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Gelede Body Mask

Arts of Africa

Becoming New

Masquerade is to some extent always “new.” Each performance varies in response to changes in setting, music, costume, audience, and the performers’ movements. However, circumstances sometimes require the invention of totally new types of masquerade to address new issues.

Ode-lay is a uniquely urban form of masquerade that developed in Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown. This mask likely has its origins in the 1960s or ‘70s, when new genres of film, particularly those from or about Asia, inspired novel mask creations. The crowned central figure on this mask, flanked by two pairs of sinuous snarling serpents, may be directly related to the kung fu movies of the period. The imagery of this mask may also recall that of Mami Wata, a pan-African water goddess recognized throughout West Africa and the Caribbean, whose roots lie in the local adaptation of imagery drawing from India, the Pacific, and Europe.

Male Yoruba dancers wear gelede masks at festivals honoring the women of the community. Gelede often serves as a showcase for artistic innovation, with its masks depicting motifs that are both entertaining and critical. The full-body example seen here is a highly unusual artistic reinvention of the gelede form; only about half a dozen are known in Western collections.
CULTURE Yoruba
MEDIUM Wood, paint
  • Place Made: Africa
  • DATES 19th century
    DIMENSIONS 49 1/2 x 22 x 15 1/2 in. (125.7 x 55.9 x 39.4 cm)  (show scale)
    COLLECTIONS Arts of Africa
    MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
    ACCESSION NUMBER 1999.129
    CREDIT LINE Gift of Corice and Armand P. Arman
    RIGHTS STATEMENT Creative Commons-BY
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    CAPTION Yoruba. Gelede Body Mask, 19th century. Wood, paint, 49 1/2 x 22 x 15 1/2 in. (125.7 x 55.9 x 39.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Corice and Armand P. Arman, 1999.129. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 1999.129_transpc001.jpg)
    IMAGE overall, 1999.129_transpc001.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph
    "CUR" at the beginning of an image file name means that the image was created by a curatorial staff member. These study images may be digital point-and-shoot photographs, when we don\'t yet have high-quality studio photography, or they may be scans of older negatives, slides, or photographic prints, providing historical documentation of the object.
    CATALOGUE DESCRIPTION The object is a Gelede body mask. From bottom to top, its body is a cylindrical form with a protruding abdomen into which two small curved eye holes have been cut. Above the abdomen are hanging breasts. Arms are bent with hands holding a purple and white shawl which is draped around the shoulders. Above the shoulders is a cylindrical neck supporting a helmet mask covered in white pigment with a broad nose and mouth, protruding eyes, and median crest coiffure. There are indigenous repairs along a split in the center of the abdomen at the left side of the back.
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    Yoruba. <em>Gelede Body Mask</em>, 19th century. Wood, paint, 49 1/2 x 22 x 15 1/2 in. (125.7 x 55.9 x 39.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Corice and Armand P. Arman, 1999.129. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 1999.129_transpc001.jpg)