An announcement in the Daily Times, a Nigerian newspaper distributed throughout the country, summoned the sons and daughters of the city of Abeokuta home for an Egungun festival in June 1970. The author of this volume attended the celebration, which lasted for several days. Dancing, drumming, and singing as well as feasting with family and friends contributed to a most festive atmosphere. Numerous public masquerades featured costumes made entirely of textiles; others highlighted carved wooden masks or headdresses in the form of human heads, animals, or combinations of both. Some events, such as worship activities and the appearance of masks bearing powerful, potentially lethal medicines, were not public.
The Egungun masquerade annually calls the spirits of the ancestors and the recently departed back from the realm of the dead to visit their descendants and survivors. The ancestors, represented by masks always worn by male dancers, grant their survivors' petitions for protection from harm, the gift of children and all good things that contribute to the family's well-being, and they settle disputes over inheritance or other problems that have surfaced since their last visit.(9)
This colorful Egungun costume is composed of layers of Nigerian and European textiles that have been cut into panels and bound with contrasting fabrics and colors. The costume completely concealed the dancer and was probably accessorized with gloves and footwear, possibly to match the textiles used.(10) There are panels of cotton velveteen, silk, wool, and cotton damask with a variety of figurative and geometric motifs, all expensive imports fit for a king or other high-ranking members of society. At its core is the initial layer that covers the dancer from head to toe. A rectangular mesh panel near the top of the costume allows for visibility. Each year family members add another layer of cloth, always continuing the symmetrical format, to refurbish the costume before the festival. The costume is adorned with mirrors, buttons, and metal coinlike forms. Despite its great size, the masker twirls around this way and that causing the layers to fly outward during the dance.
The year this costume was created is not known precisely. Theoretically, one can ascertain how long a costume has been in use by counting the layers of cloth and consulting European trade catalogues to obtain the date particular fabrics arrived in Nigeria. This costume may offer an intriguing clue to its age, or at least contributes to the study of Yoruba commemorative cloths, which are used for the installation of a king or for other important public or private events. One panel made of pure cotton cloth carries a repeat pattern of a medallion motif. The upside-down image in the medallion is that of a white-wigged European male, who is identified as "Lawyer Wells Palmer" and to whom someone was grateful, as indicated by the word adupe (thank you) that is printed opposite his name (see detail, p. 193).
A judgment of the British Court issued in March 1931 identifies Wells Palmer as counsel for the appellant who was His Royal Highness Eshugbayi Eleko, the king (oba) of Lagos from 1900 until 1925 when he was deposed.11 According to a genealogy of the obas of Lagos, Eshugbayi Eleko regained the throne in 1931 but served only one year before he died.(12) In the absence of other cloths that thank other members of the king's legal team, one can assume Palmer was the most deserving of recognition. The mystery remains to be solved.
The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 65, pp. 190-193.
9. For descriptions of contemporary masquerades, see Thompson, Robert Farris. African Art in Motion: Icon and Act. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973. pp. 219-226.
Houlberg, Marilyn Hammersley. “Notes on Egungun Masquerades among the Oyo Yoruba.” African Arts 11, no. 3 (April 1978). pp. 56–61, 99.
Drewal, Henry John. “The Arts of Egungun among Yoruba Peoples.” African Arts 11, no. 3 (April 1978): 18–19, 97–98.
Lawal, Babatunde. “Incarnating the ‘Living Dead’ through Egungun Masquerades. In Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art: Featuring the Bernard and Patricia Wagner Collection, 76–81. Atlanta: High Museum of Art; Newark, N.J.: Newark Museum, 2008. pp. 76-81.
10. For a comparison with an Egungun costume from Ibadan, Nogeria, in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, University of Wisconsin, see Greenfield, Molly. “Cataloguing a Mystery: A Yoruba Egungun.” Newsletter (University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Human Ecology) (Fall 2005): 1–8, 18.
11. International Centre for Nigerian Law (ICFNL), "Eshugbayi Eleko vs the Officer Administering the Government of Nigeria, No. 2," www.nigeria-law.org/Eshugbayi%20Eleko%20v.%20The%20Officer% 20administering%20the%20Government%200f% 20Nigeria%20No%202.htm (accessed July 7, 2009).
12. Lagos Now ‘n’ Then!, “Genealogy of the Obas of Lagos,” www.enownow.com/Lagos%20now%20then/then_lagos_kings.htm (accessed May 28, 2006).