By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

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

In addition to masquerade's role in expressing commentary upon changing social and political circumstances, it may also serve to express chosen nationalist symbols. The Gelede mask shown here represents Behanzin, the last king to rule Dahomey before colonization by the French. He is shown here with his arm up in a sign to halt the French, who were infiltrating Dahomey to put an end to slavery, which proliferated under Behanzin's reign. An entire monument in the public square at the entry to Abomey shows Behanzin in this very pose. Yet, it is surprising that a Gelede mask, made by a Yoruba artist, would depict and therefore celebrate the same event, for Yoruba peoples were themselves victims of Behanzin's slavery. The mask suggests that the image of resistance to the French is a nationalist symbol that has been chosen over and above the memory of local historical conflict.