By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Yoruba peoples, Nigeria, Gelede mask. Photo by Allen F. Roberts.

Gelede masks are among the most admired “traditional” African art forms and are always recognizable by the human-faced helmet mask that honors elder Yoruba women. Yet, observation of the continuing evolution of Gelede manufacture and performance shows how quickly and cleverly Gelede forms change over time. The innovation that is admired by Yoruba artists has the quality of being multi-referential and of current sociopolitical relevance. This Gelede mask surmounted by a bulldozer is an obvious reference to modern technology. But it is also a reference to “our mothers,” who are the inventors of critical things. It also alludes to the god of iron, Ogun, for a bulldozer is an iron object that clears the path, just as Ogun does in contexts of warfare. Finally, it is a joke on male virility, because the articulation of the mask makes the blade stand erect.