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Yoruba Layewu mask

Yoruba Layewu mask
Yoruba Layewu maskYoruba Layewu maskYoruba Layewu maskYoruba Layewu mask
Tribe: Yoruba
Country: Nigeria
Ritual: Egungun
Name: Unknown (Layewu)
Materials: Wood, white and red pigments
Provenance: Coll. Andrew Turley, North Cameroon 2009
Comments: Although I believe this mask was constructed for Yoruba rituals, stylistically the facial features are sharp and the carver has used several typically igbo scarification patterns (whorls), so it is possible that it was commissioned outside the Yoruba heartland, carved within by an Igbo carver or is the result of a blending of styles. From the wear patterns and other signs I believe it is ritually authentic and estimate an age of circa 1970 to 1980.

Egungun masquerades are found throughout Yorubaland and are associated with the veneration of ancestors who are believed capable of helping the living community if they are properly honoured. Egungun, like the ancestors they are associated with are identified with specific families, playing a regulatory role and serve as a link between the living and dead.

Donning the costume the masker is depersonalized, ritually transformed into a human repository for the spirit of the returning ancestor. When he enters a state of possession he speaks with the voice of the deceased.

In "A History of African Art" the authors state that the categorization of Egungun varies, occaisionally based on style, sometimes by seniority or status and at other times by deportment. Types may be transferred from one area to another, allowing for a blending of styles, and sometimes several styles being seen side by side within a single community.

The hair tufts on this mask indicate that the mask is male. Hunters wore their hair long and braided into a tail at the back of their head, covering incisions in the scalp where medicines had been inserted. A two-tufted Layewu style, can be seen in Plate 26 in William Fagg"s book, Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa.

The red and white colouring of the face further supports a male mask - danced for the fiery orisha shango. In the book African Masks from the Barbier Mueller Collection it is pointed out that the red-white colour contrast is often associated with the Shango Association.

Wiliam Fagg states that the painting of Yoruba masks is not only of aesthetic importance; it has symbolic significance. The Yoruba pantheon of gods can be divided into two groups of orisha: the hot (red) or dark gods and those gods whose powers are associated with coolness and whiteness. The distinction is not a rigid one and each shares some measure of the other.


  1. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa, William Fagg, Alfred A Knopf,1982
  2. Spirits Speak: A Celebration of African Masks, Prestel 2005
  3. The Tribal Arts of Africa, J.B. Bacquart. 1998.
  4. A History of African Art, Harry. N. Abrams Inc Publisher NY 2001.
  5. Masks of Black Africa. Ladislas Segy. 1976.