Egúngún, which can be translated as ‘powers concealed’ is an annual or biennial masquerade festival held by Yoruba-speaking people in Nigeria. It takes the form of masked and costumed performers moving among the crowd, through the streets.
An Egúngún masker represents, honours and invokes an ancestor. Concealed by his layered cloth costume, the performer energetically spins the ancestor into being through freeform dance.
About Egúngún performance
Egúngún appear in annual or biennial festivals held by Yoruba-speaking peoples to honour the ancestors and request their blessings. The Egúngún in the Brighton collection consists of an elaborately layered costume made up of panels of embroidered, appliquéd textiles. The layering is a mark of the owner’s prestige; it also makes the transformation of the dancer possible. Skilled and energetic dancing results in the cloth panels flaring out, exposing the multiple layers and coloured under-surfaces, and completely transforming the appearance of the Egúngún. The movement of these cloths generate what researchers have termed a ‘breeze of blessing’ through the crowd.
The identity of the dancer is concealed – Egúngún can be translated as “powers concealed” – the work of the performer is to bring the costume to life and in doing so, to lose his identity in that of the ancestor whose powers will be brought forward.
Men perform the Egúngún; women participate in the ritual dances and sing praise poems.
‘Believed to be the embodiment of ancestral sprits, an important context for these masks is to provide a farewell visit following the death of any senior men in families that belong to the mask society. A few weeks after the burial, a mask will emerge from the dead man’s room, dressed in his old clothes, to rebuke any quarrelling family members, say farewell to his wives and children, and perhaps accuse someone of responsibility in his death. Other Egúngún perform at an annual town festival, parading thorough the streets with a gang of followers, often surrounded by a posse of excited young men, with sticks who chase and beat each other and youths in the crowd. As embodiments of the ancestors, the more important of these masks are thought by many to have healing powers and often women who are having problems, especially relating to fertility, will kneel and supplicate the spirit for assistance. Small gifts of money are made to the mask’s attendants, and if the problem is subsequently resolved a chicken or some other sacrifice may be given. Certain masks will achieve reputations for successful intercession and ay accumulate a growing power, visibly represented on the mask itself by a growing encrustation of black sacrificial residues.’ (D. Clarke 1998)
The costume mask
Next to the skin is the undersack, made of aso oke, which is an indigo and white strip cloth (usually woven on a narrow loom, this undercloth closely resembles the shroud in which a body is wrapped for burial). The face is covered with netting, the hands are gloved. This first layer helps to completely disguise the identity of the masker.
The second layer is made up of long lappets of cloth, attached to a “shoulder” platform. These lappets are often made of velvets and brocades, the most expensive fabrics that a family can afford. The first layers are usually made of older cloth, with appliqué and embroidery, and over the years as the mask is refreshed, more lappets are added. The underside of these lappets is frequently lined with a bright coloured cloth which flashes into sight as the dancer performs.
The shoulder platform supports as small carved head, with a further flaring headdress on top of that.
The Egúngún costume is merely a shell, its power is activated when worn and performed by a masker, who is transformed during the Egúngún ceremony into the presence of the ancestor.
Through divination, an ancestor might request a new costume. The owner, patron, priest of divination, herbalist and tailor would collaborate with the entire lineage in the production of the new Egúngún ensemble.
Remembering an Egúngún
‘I had watched them [the masqueraders] before over the wall of the backyard, seated on Joseph’s shoulders. I knew that the egúngún were spirits of the dead. They spoke in guttural voices and were to be feared even more than kidnappers. And yet I had noticed that many of them were also playful and would joke with children. I had very nearly been startled off Joseph’s shoulders once when one of them passed directly beneath the wall, looked up and waved, calling out in the familiar throaty manner, “Nle o, omo Tisa Agba” (Greeting, son of the Senior Teacher).’
(Wole Soyinka, autobiography Ake: The Years of Childhood 1981)