THE FEMALE PRESENCE
Gele is an elaborate women's headdress made popular by its use by women in sub-Saharan Africa. The name is Yoruba but the art form represented by the headdress is used in geographical locations beyond the demographic concentrations of the Yoruba in south-west Nigeria. It is used mainly in other African countries and in the African Diaspora.
The art of gele is marked by a sense of dynamic form, in which eloquent and elegant creases, vertical stretching, horizontal elongation, perpendicular balance, spiral twists, among other design configurations, are used to create a structure out of cloth, a structure that acts as a crown for the head.
Implicitly related to the elaborate character of this striking headdress is a complex of ideas about the head as matrix of cognition and as symbol for ori, the invisible but potent "inner head", the cognitive essence of the individual which transcends death, and which embodies the ultimate potential of the self.
The art of gele and its indirect relationship with the Classical Yoruba ontology of the human being can be related to the art of Gelede, an institution of Yoruba society that relates to an understanding of women as embodying, in a distinctive manner, the creative force, ase, that enables being and becoming in the universe. Within this structure of belief it is held that some women are able to demonstrate this power to an unusual degree, and may manifest it for good or evil. Such women are known as aje, and their character as women whose distinctive spiritual powers emanate from the procreative possibilities of their biology is represented by the name this group of women is known by,Awon Iya Wa,Our Mothers.
The Gelede festival is held in honour of these women, who, generally, are not understood to be known to the average human being, since their power is esoteric and the members of their fraternity often known only to fellow members. Men could also understand themselves as aje on account of their own cultivation of the special knowledge and power that comes with ase, but the name is usually attributed more to women.
The Gelede festival is noted for the use of elaborate masks worn on the head and the face in which animal and bird motifs predominate, among various examples of this mask headdress. Men play the role of Gelede performers but the festival is in honour of a form of women's mystery, mystery here referring to the use of the term in ancient Greek religion and Christian theology, where it refers to practices and beliefs that relate to aspects of existence that cannot be fully cognised through ratiocinative knowledge but are better approached through ritual, imagination, reverence, and the psycho-physical integration of self made possible through initiation into a spiritual potential.
The Gelede masks are visually powerful sculptural constructions, which, in their deployment of a sense of dynamic form, of arrested kinetic energy as embodied by animals in action and by solid but energetically shaped bands, share some stylistic affinities with the art of gele. In the convergence of both art forms in their use in relation to the head, they could both be understood to symbolise the relationship between the physical head and energies of self projection and self empowerment, as in the psychological and social empowerment made possible by the satorial elegance of the gele, and the spiritual empowerment enabled by the ritual wearing of the gelede mask, the ritual use of the mask being a process related to the establishing of relationship with the powers of birth and death, of creativity and destruction represented by the Aje, Awon Iya Wa Osoronga.
The photo album below is inspired by a sense of some relationship of structure between both artistic forms, and between the implicit symbolism of gele and the explicit symbolism of Gelede masks. The formal similarities can be understood in terms of a balance between the kinetic and the relatively stable. The sense of motion is evoked in Gelede masks by animals in action, by intertwining, intersecting, intersecting constructions. The balance between action and stillness is evoked by the juxtaposition between the energy suggested by the abstract shape or activity dramatised by the construction on top of the mask, and the calm evoked by the almost contemplative stillness of the face on which the elaborate sculptural coiffure rests. Along similar lines, the dynamism of the gele, in its demonstration of the plasticity of cloth realised through a variety of contours, indentations, mini cavities and spiral bands, by flutations in which a dialogue is initiated between mass, volume, space and air, is an active yet quiescent structure which contrasts with and yet complements the humanised specifications of the face on whose head the entire ensemble rests, like the universe of activity and dynamism on the top of the Gelede mask rests on the still face of the feminine form depicted by the mask.