by Suzanne Labry
Patchwork Around the World: Yoruba Dance Costumes
The Yoruba peoples are one of the largest West African ethnic groups south of the Sahara Desert. They live primarily in western Nigeria, but also in Benin and Togo.
During the slave trade, the area where the Yoruba lived was known as the Slave Coast, and many thousands of Yoruba were carried to the Americas as slaves.
The Yoruba have a rich cultural history, including a particular reverence for textiles. They are renowned for making various types of woven cloth, and men are primarily the weavers.
In writing about Yoruba textile holdings in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, Molly Greenfield stated, “A common saying in Yorubaland is ‘Asp la riki ki a to ki eniyan’ or ‘It is the cloth we should greet before greeting the wearer.’
“This saying illustrates that in some contexts the cloth that the person wears is more important than the physical attractiveness of the person themselves. It also indicates that one’s importance or status is tangibly linked to the garments they wear and cloth they possess.”
In Yoruba culture, nakedness is equated to infancy, lack of social responsibility, and even insanity, and cloth is associated with immortality.
With those as basic tenants of their belief system, it is not hard to understand how textiles from which clothing and costumes are made holds special significance for the Yoruba. The more elaborate the clothing, the more power and prestige are attributed to the wearer.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the special Yoruba religious custom called Egungun.
Egungun is a physical manifestation, performed by a man in costume, of the spirits of departed ancestors. Egungun spirits are believed to bless, protect, warn, or punish their earthly relatives depending on how those relatives honor them (or not). The appearance of Egungun in a community is a major celebration marked by drumming, acrobatic dancing, and singing that can go on for several days.
An Egungun costume consists of numerous layers that completely mask the wearer’s identity. The very top layer is composed of lappets (decorative flaps) that are made of brightly colored patchwork from a variety of locally woven and imported fine fabrics and embellished with metal, beads, shells, leather, and bones.
These lappets are often edged with prairie points that the Yoruba call igbala. According to Molly Greenfield, “The word igbala means ‘something that saves a person.’ In this way, cloth is believed to have immortal and powerful properties that when combined with song, dance, and ceremony, can affect the lives of the Yoruba people.”
As the wearer whirls around during the dance, the lappets fly out, creating a “breeze of blessing” that is said to represent the Yoruba goddess of whirlwinds and the three “essential elements:” cloth, wind, and power.