African Art

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In both Yoruba and Bamum culture, the idea of balance of power between the sexes grants both men and women an equal degree of power, but often in different ways. Both genders have their own characteristics and qualities that empower them and neither is complete without the other. In Yoruba, gender plays a primary role in Gelede masquerade and in its custom of empowering the queen while in Bamum gender roles are articulated in palace architecture and in the custom of allowing Queen Mother to check and balance king’s power.

Within a clear distinction of gender role, the power of women is emphasized and is articulated in concept, mask, performance, and setting of the Yoruba Gelede masquerade, which is a Yoruba festival honoring the women of the community. It is a manifestation of respect for the power of women, their life force and motherhood so that such power continues to benefit and protect the community. Gelede masks such as the Great Mother, the Spirit Bird mask, and the nocturnal mask, each representing composure, mystical form, and the inner head respectively, underscores female power. During the masquerade dancers, consisted only of males, express Yoruba ideals of male and female behaviors through dance movements. It is important to note that the performance is taken place at the market place which is considered as women’s space, for it is a center of social and economic activity for women whose common occupation it trading.

In Yoruba culture, gender role appears not only through Gelede masquerade but also in its custom of queen’s check on Oba’s power in royal palace. What cannot be done by king is often done by queen. By allowing queen to hold such power, Yoruba culture managed to maintain check and balance of power within palace. Take one of Yoruba custom for instance. King is prohibited to look into his own crown or wear it himself while queen is not. Due to such check and balance, Yoruba king’s power remains great yet fragile.

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