Whirling Return of the Ancestors
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.”