Gelede (‘Mothers’ Headdress)

Onilu (Drummer)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Gelede headdresses (not masks as these sit ON the head and not across the face) are one of the few among the Yoruba to celebrate female forces. The headdresses, along with associated masquerade costumes, are used to promote peace and harmony within a community by celebrating the spiritual powers of women (specifically elderly women, 'awon iya wa' and the great mother Yemoja, 'iya nla'); the powers of which can be used for either good or evil. “With gẹ, meaning ‘to soothe, to placate, to pet or coddle,’ ẹlẹ meaning a woman’s private parts, and dẹ meaning ‘to soften with care or gentleness,’ Gelede refers to the concept of honouring women and their innate powers so that the entire community may reap the benefits of their life-giving forces.”2

The Gelede festival is held annually, usually in the late afternoon in springtime, during which Gelede masquerades from various parts of a town or village arrive at a single market square. The masquerades perform in pairs, dancing across the market square dressed in Gelede headdresses and costumes, celebrating the various roles of villagers in the society (market traders, blacksmiths, hunters, mothers, priestesses, etc…). The headdresses are usually elaborated carved to depict these roles while others depict metaphors of various acceptable and unacceptable behaviours within the community.

Gelede headdresses are found mainly in southwestern region of Nigeria (i.e. western Yorubaland including the villages and cities Ketu, Egbado, Ohori, Anago and Awori). In some areas Gelede honours Ogun, the god of iron and war and in other regions Eshu (the trickster god and messenger of the gods) is honoured.

For more, see the UNESCO video HERE on the oral heritage of Gelede.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all Gelede masks:

  • Often carved from a single piece of wood
  • Female head with a calm face
  • Female head usually carved carrying a superstructure; a round or square tray (ate), displaying village or metaphoric scenes
  • The subject represented in the superstructure determines the name of the mask which can be grouped into 6 categories:
    • Food hawker / ritual bowl carrier representing a female street vendor displaying produce for sale on a tray, bowl or inside a basket
    • Traditional & modern occupations such as blacksmithing, drumming, hunting, carving, driving, tailoring or carpentry
    • Religious dignitaries
    • Commemorative portraits
    • Satire
    • Aspects of life in the town or forest

Sub-type variations ( Onilu - Drummer):

  • Eleru mask (eleru is a head with superstructure)
  • Musicians on the superstructure playing dundun drums
  • Some headdresses depict only the drums (iyalu talking drum, gangun, isaju, kerikeri, gudugudu and bembe drums)

Regional variations (Ketu sub-group):

  • Ketu masks are distinctive in their style with flattened prognathous faces
  • A little less refined

Regional variations (Awori sub-group / Ota city):

  • Circular holes for eyes

Regional variations (Awori sub-group / Igbesa city):

  • Slits for eyes (instead of round holes)

Share this