Ruth Davis Design Gallery

Whirling Return of the Ancestors:
Egúngún Arts of the Yorùbá in Africa and Beyond

January 24 – April 8, 2018

Egungun costume

The Ruth Davis Design Gallery hosts the exhibition Whirling Return of the Ancestors, a dynamic, multi-sensorial exhibition of sights, sounds, motions … and emotions, January 24 – April 8, 2018. The exhibition presents the rich and varied artistry of Egúngún masquerades and other arts inspired by a tradition that honors and celebrates the power and eternal presence of ancestors among Yorùbá peoples of West Africa. This connection between the living and the departed is expressed in a Yorùbá saying: “The world is a marketplace [we visit], the otherworld is home.” (Ayé l’ọjà, ọ̀run n’ilé).

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Whirling Return of the Ancestors was researched, organized, and curated by students in the fall 2017 Art History Curatorial Studies-Exhibition Practice class taught by Evjue-Bascom Professor Henry Drewal. The project was developed in collaboration with the Ruth Davis Design Gallery in the School of Human Ecology (SoHE) and resonates closely with SoHE’s vision to inspire global intercultural experiences, reach new audiences, and welcome creativity through synthesizing research, outreach, and engagement.

Egúngún masquerades are collaborative family and community creations involving reflection, remembrance, and renewal. Such masquerade pageantry celebrates the spirits of ancestral hunters and warriors, legendary heroes and heroines, founding fathers and mothers, and a pantheon of uncountable deified ancestors (òrìṣà) – all of whom influence and guide the living.

Egúngún multi-media ensembles range from the fearsome to the fashionable. Cloth is the primary medium of Egúngún. Yorùbá say, “cloth only wears to shreds,” that is, it never disappears, like ever-present ancestors. Egúngún are made of layers upon layers of disparate fabrics, some locally woven and re-worked, others industrially manufactured from all parts of the planet. Each three-dimensional Egúngún ensemble materializes the fourth dimension: the spiritual realm of the departed. Its varied media enclose and activate the trance-formation of the masquerader who becomes the spirit of an ancestor and embodies the infinite cycle of birth, life, departure and return.

Gallery visitors will encounter two dazzling Egúngún ensembles that create a “breeze of blessing” when they whirl in performance. The exhibition also includes two historic Egúngún ensembles from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, cloth and carved wooden headdresses, and carved memorial figures representing departed sacred twins. Several works are on loan from the Chazen Museum of Art and private collectors. Powerful contemporary traditions are represented through photographs by Phyllis Galembo, textile works by Agbo Folarin and Koffi Gahou, a painting by Wole Lagunju, and a painted ensemble in motion by Moyo Okediji. The gallery is filled with sights, sounds, and motions in a documentary film of the annual Egúngún festival in Porto Novo, Republic of Benin, and Ọ̀yọ́tunji Village, South Carolina.

A series of monthly public programs supplement the exhibition:
Email Will Porter, Events Coordinator of the African Studies Program, at for questions about event times, locations, or other details.

· Thursday, March 1, 6-7 pm: Death, Culture & Coffee: Honoring ancestors in Madison
Room 1199 Nancy Nicholas Hall, School of Human Ecology, 1300 Linden Drive
Join the African Studies Program for coffee and conversation on the ways that we honor our own ancestors in Madison. Four local presenters will discuss some of the funerary practices and traditions observed within various communities in the Madison area. Light refreshments provided. Please feel welcome to arrive early and visit the gallery exhibition prior to attending to the presentation.
Karen Reppen, Death Awareness Educator
Elizabeth Humphries, Death Midwife
Bryan Foster, Foster Funeral Services
Shedd Farley, Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability

· March 7, 2018, Noon-1pm: Lecture-demo about African American Second-Line funeral processions in New Orleans.
Room 206 Ingraham Hall, School of Human Ecology, 1155 Observatory Dr.
Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, musician and head of the Northside Skull and Bones Gang
Rachel Breunlin, Director of the Neighborhood Story Project, Department of Anthropology University of New Orleans
See details here.

· April 6-7, 2018: Two-day Symposium on the theme Honoring Ancestors in Africa: Arts and Actions. See the full schedule here.

    Friday morning sessions: 9:30am-3:15pm
    Room L140, Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, 800 University Avenue
    Friday afternoon dance forum: 3:30-4:30pm
    Lathrop Hall, University Avenue, Madison
    Saturday day-time sessions: 9:30am-4:30pm
    Room 2235/2255, School of Human Ecology, Nancy Nicholas Hall, 1300 Linden Drive
    Saturday evening dance party: 9:00pm
    The Sett, Union South, 1308 W Dayton Street, Madison

Funding provided by the UW-Madison Anonymous Fund, the African Studies Program, the Evjue Foundation, African Diaspora and the Atlantic World Research Circle (ADAWRC), the Center for the Humanities, the Center for Visual Cultures, the Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS), and Afro-American Studies.


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All Design Gallery events and exhibitions are funded entirely by competitive grants and private donations. Help us keep our programs free and accessible to the public through a gift to the Design Gallery Exhibition Fund at the University of Wisconsin Foundation.
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Wed – Fri, 10am – 4pm
Thur evenings until 7pm
Sat – Sun, Noon – 4pm

Closed Mar 24 – 25, and Mar 31 – Apr 1 in observance of Spring Break. The gallery will be open 10am – 4pm, March 28 – 30


1300 Linden Dr., Madison
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