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'Elvis' Mask for Nyau Society

Arts of Africa

Masks can be used for a variety of purposes, but they are particularly useful for expressing disapproval and thus reinforcing communal values. These two masks performed instructional and critical messages about proper behavior and political discontent.

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. This mask depicts a French gendarme, a colonial soldier, and was most likely performed as a critique of French personal and political behavior during the colonial period.

The mask depicting Elvis Presley belonged to the Nyau society (to which all Chewa men belong), an institution that governs the spiritual realm of death and the ancestors. The society's masks represent the spirits of the deceased, but they may also represent wild bush spirits or caricature personalities from the wider community. Outsiders—including Swahili slave traders, British officials, the Virgin Mary, and other iconic foreigners such as Elvis Presley—have been considered representative of antisocial traits and undesirable values.
MEDIUM Wood, paint, fiber, cloth
DATES ca. 1977
DIMENSIONS 11 x 9 1/2 x 7 1/4 in. (27.9 x 24.1 x 18.4 cm)  (show scale)
COLLECTIONS Arts of Africa
MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
CREDIT LINE Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. Gordon Douglas III, Frederick E. Ossorio, and Elliot Picket, by exchange and Designated Purchase Fund
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CAPTION Chewa. 'Elvis' Mask for Nyau Society, ca. 1977. Wood, paint, fiber, cloth, 11 x 9 1/2 x 7 1/4 in. (27.9 x 24.1 x 18.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. Gordon Douglas III, Frederick E. Ossorio, and Elliot Picket, by exchange and Designated Purchase Fund, 2010.41. Creative Commons-BY
IMAGE overall, 2010.41_PS6.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2011
"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 mask decorated to look like Elvis, carved from a single piece of wood with the eyes, mouth and nostrils pierced through; on the interior, tool marks are clearly visible. Synthetic hair has been attached around the open back of the head and defines the hair and sideburns as well as the eyes and eyebrows. A fairly thick layer of pink paint has been applied over the front of the mask and over the edges of the hair. The bottom edge and interior of the mask are not painted. Darker pink is present on selected areas of the cheeks, forehead and chin. The lips are painted red. Various textiles and burlap are attached around the edges with natural fiber twine through a series of holes in the wood and to each other with plastic-like thread. A strip of burlap is attached around the entire edge of the mask and a strip of knitted black material is applied over the burlap along the bottom edge. A beige textile with a light brown floral pattern is attached on top of the burlap and knitted fabric around the entire bottom edge and is stitched together in various places with the plastic thread. A strip of a red, blue and white checkered material is tied around the hair at the back of the head on the interior. Sections of the hair are also tied together with the plastic thread. Pieces of teal and purple yarn are also strung to the back of the head on the exterior. Patches of white material (paper?) with circular openings have been applied to inside behind eyes to create the whites of the eyes, which are visible from the front.
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