The Gelede Mask festival in Benin

9-10th December 2017 

Not far from Abomey, the ancient capital of Dahomey kingdom, we attend a Gelede masks festival, rituals which celebrate the spirits of Mother Nature, in a riot of colors and sounds.

Gelede celebrations Gelede festival
The tradition of the Gelede masks comes from the Yoruba people of Nigeria and celebrates the female spirits of Mother Earth, to propitiate a good harvest, the fertility of earth and people, or even to request an intercession in case of problems in the community (for example following an outbreak).
Gelede mask Gelede masks
A Gelede mask consists of a wooden sculpture without holes for the eyes, painted in bright colors that enhance the shapes and the caricatures of the represented face. On the top of the mask there is a small statue, or even an animated marionette, which represents the character, actually the spirit or the power celebrated by the mask. The body of the person wearing the Geleda mask is completely covered by a very colorful costume with elaborate patterns.
Rolling drums
The person wearing the Geleda mask wears also a series of objects that produce sounds with every movement, giving to the Gelede festival a really cheerful and theatrical appearance, with rhythmic dances accompanied also by the roll of the drums.
Geleda Gelede
Geleda mask Geleda masks
Photos of Gelede masks representing various spirits, powers and characters. To be noted is the absence of holes for the eyes: this is actually possible because the mask is worn above the head (not in front of the face), while the view is granted through a veil that does not reveal anything to the spectators.

A video showing a dance of the Gelede masks.
Children in an african village
Meanwhile, children attending the Gelede festival, looks intrigued and amused, while someone distributes snacks to the many spectators.
Child selling snacks in Africa
But now let's see in detail how the animated marionette mounted on top of this Gelede mask works...
This Geleda mask represents an animated character operated by the actor present under the costume, which is totally invisible to the spectator. The sequence of photos shows the marionette that opens a bowl, drinks from it, closes it and then spits out the drink water.
Masks in West Africa Masks in Benin
Masks in Africa

This other mask represents the spirit that protects all those who work with vehicles: the marionette on top of the mask consists of a motorcycle with the position lights that light up at the command of the actor under the costume.
West Africa masked festival
Here instead we have a really high mask, probably VERY heavy, and I wonder how the actor can still move with such agility...
Gelede celebration
Mask in Benin Africa masks festival
Gelede rituals Gelede ritual
More photos of masks taken during a Gelede festival, showing various marionettes mounted on top.
Mask representing fertility Masks festival in Africa
Instead, this mask represents the fertility of earth and people.
Crocodile mask
A rather particular mask, with a marionette representing a crocodile and the costume made with a large amount of straw.
Mask simulating a trance
This rather scary-looking mask is used instead for a particular Gelede ritual that punishes disobedient children, frightening them. After simulating a sort of trance, the mask runs towards children, picking the chosen one and simulating a kidnapping. Although it should serve as a warning and punishment, children usually enjoy a lot in participating to this show.
Mask kidnapping children

This video shows the children quickly running away because they don't want to be kidnapped by the mask.
It is now almost night and the end of the Gelede celebrations sees the entrance of a mask whose marionette brings out a banknote of 10,000 Benin Francs, as a sign of good luck.
Abomey Royal Palace Abomey museum
After having attended the Gelede rituals, we pay a visit to the Royal Palace of Abomey, the former residence of the king and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately inside the museum is totally prohibited to take photos (visitors are required to leave their camera in a safe at the reception). This is a really huge shame, because the museum tells lot of things about the slave trade and other important facts of Benin history, facts that all the world should know (but without pictures impossible to spread around).
Dahomey Kingdom
Abomey is the ancient capital of the Dahomey Kingdom and everywhere in the city there are paintings and bas-reliefs depicting the symbols of the various dynasties that took place between 1600 and 1904.
King Gbehanzin
In Abomey we visit the monument that represents the resistance of King Gbehanzin to the French colonial occupation. It is in this place that the king surrendered to General Dodds in 1894 after the final battle of 1892 between the French colonial army and the Dahomey troops.
Stall selling pineapples Very big pineapples
On the highway again, from Abomey to southern Benin, we meet many street vendors selling lot of pineapples of a particularly elongated shape.
Pilgrimage in Africa Traditional clothes in West Africa
Little girl with braids
Shortly thereafter, we come across a pilgrimage that sees thousands of participants in their colorful clothes.

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