Whirling Return of the Ancestors: Egúngún Masquerade Ensembles of the Yorùbá
Whirling Return of the Ancestors celebrates the rich and varied artistry of the ensembles worn in Egúngún masquerades—performances that celebrate the power and presence of ancestral spirits among Yorùbá peoples of West Africa. In this installation, works on loan from Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology are presented alongside a magnificent, newly commissioned ensemble from Yorùbá artisans in Benin.
Egúngún masquerade regalia is constructed from disparate layers that are appliqued, patched, and sewn into panels or lappets. Some of the oldest cloth—often locally handwoven—is found at the core of each ensemble, while the outer layers present more contemporary textiles drawn from the global market. Bold and vibrant, these assemblages are multidimensional feasts for the senses.
This exhibition was co-curated by Bolaji Victor Campbell (professor, History of Art and Visual Culture Department, RISD), Henry John Drewal (Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Kate Irvin (curator, Costume and Textiles Department, RISD Museum). It is made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is part of a collaboration between the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University and the RISD Museum at the Rhode Island School of Design, focusing on the new and evolving field of object-based teaching and research. Exhibition support is also provided in part by a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, through an appropriation by the Rhode Island General Assembly and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
This exhibition celebrates the rich and varied artistry of Egúngún, the masquerades that honor the presence and power of ancestral spirits among the Yorùbá peoples of West Africa and their descendants in the Americas. Older Egúngún ensembles on loan from Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology are displayed alongside an ensemble newly commissioned from Yorùbá artist-priests in Ouidah, Republic of Benin.
The Yorùbá proverb “Omo l’aso èdá” (Children are the clothes of a person) points out that children, like clothes, are what we show to the world, and we are judged accordingly. These ensembles are altered over time, constructed of layers upon layers of disparate textiles that are appliquéd, patched, and sewn into panels, or lappets. The oldest textiles are found at the core of the ensemble, while the outer layers present expensive, exotic, and fashionable choices from the contemporary global market.
As assemblages, these works represent the artistic sensibilities and collaborative inventiveness (ìmojú mora) of the women and men of a family; as vibrant ensembles in action, they are multidimensional feasts for the senses. They are worn in performance at annual festivals of remembrance and renewal, at funeral celebrations and other special occasions, and during moments of social crisis and catharsis such as drought, epidemic, or social upheaval. Amidst the animated crowd, the complex drum rhythms, and the shouts and songs of family choruses, the Egúngún performer stamps, leaps, and whirls, layers of lappets flying outward on the air, creating a “breeze of blessing.”