Unknown Yoruba Artist, Masquerade Costume, Nigeria, late 20th century
By Richard Lor, a fourth-year student in Design Studies, studying Interior Architecture
Traditional clothing and garments have always intrigued me. The traditional clothing of my own Hmong culture has significant meaning attached, and items are worn during specific events. In the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, I was immediately drawn to an Egungun masquerade costume made by an unknown Yoruba artist in Nigeria, from the second half of the twentieth century. I knew that there would be meaning and values associated with this traditional garment of the Yoruba people, much like my own culture. Traditional clothing goes beyond a piece of fashion to express associated symbolism and power.
Egungun masquerade costumes are made in “various localized styles throughout the Yoruba region of southwestern Nigeria,” (“Art of Being Tuareg”) meaning that they could differ in style and significance throughout the Yoruba regions. This costume is a multilayered, full-body masquerade costume. There are several cloth lappets sewn at the shoulder level of the costume, while the “first full-body layer consists of numerous red, yellow, gold and white prints, sewn together to form a ‘dress,’ open at the bottom and attached near the shoulder area. Lastly, a full-body layer, predominantly made of indigo strip-woven cloth, is sack-like with attached leggings (including feet), extending to the top of the head” (HLATC). The panels on this particular costume display a variety of different geometric symbols and patterns, and there are also knotted mesh gloves attached to the body of the costume. The body of the Egungun costume is made of “layer upon layer of decorated cloth that displays the status and wealth of the family honoring their ancestors” (“Art of Being Tuareg”). Each layer of decorated cloth represents the prestige of a family and their status in society, expressing the hierarchy of society through clothing. Over the years, more layers of cloth are placed over the older cloth by the owners of the costume to further honor or seek favor with the spirits of the ancestors.
The construction of this costume is very intricate, and the meaning associated with the costume makes it that much more intriguing. According to the National Museum of African Art – Smithsonian Institution, the term Egungun may be translated as “powers concealed.” The term refers to the “nature of Egungun as both a masquerade and also the embodiment of spiritual power associated with the ancestral spirits.” The National Museum of African Art discusses these costumes as used in Egungun masquerades which are performed during annual festivals called Odun Egungun. The festival honors the deceased and ensures that the ancestors have a place among the living. Essentially, the Egungun’s presence demonstrates the commitment of the community in continuing the traditions of their ancestors. These costumes play an important role in these cultural rituals, just as my own culture would wear traditional clothing for our ceremonies. Egungun costumes are an essential part of celebrating ancestors and life. It was exciting to learn about the significance and similarities shared between this Egungun costume, the Yoruba people, and my own culture.
In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology launched a yearlong anniversary celebration of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Over the past half century, the collection has grown from an original 4,000-piece gift to more than 13,000 objects that have inspired and informed thousands of students, researchers, historians, and textile aficionados. The 50-year celebration began on January 27, 2019, with the opening of new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, a space dedicated to year-round displays of the collections. Activities continue into 2019 with a calendar of public exhibitions, symposia, lectures, and public workshops.