44th Annual Meeting-Textiles Session, May 15, “Exploring Origins and Power: The technical analysis of two Yoruba masquerade costumes by Rebecca Summerour”

Rebecca Summerour presented on-going technical analysis of two mid-twentieth century SouthwR20050008estern Nigeria Yoruba egungun masquerade ensembles from the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (NMAA). Her co-author and supervisor is Dana Moffett, Object conservator at the NMAA. We were introduced to egunguns with images of these multi-layered assemblages as they are worn in ceremony, and mounted for displayed. Egungun invoke honor, and embody lineage ancestors during yearly festivals. Rebecca is working not only to analyze the varied materials used in their fabrication; she also is investigating their cultural context and the values placed on textiles in Yoruba culture through consultations with Yoruba scholars. She explored the origins of the materials used, and their importance as elements of the whole. These egunguns were collected with minimal provenience. (Image from Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, africa.si.edu)
Egunguns consist of multiple layers of colorful, mostly commercial, pieced fabric lappets with serrated edges over a wooden support that “swirl when danced.” Egunguns represent individual or collective ancestors. The ensembles are not made for a specific dancer. They are worn for generations and are repaired before each use. During repairs materials may be added or removed, making it difficult to pinpoint a date. Some of the components are pre-assembled by market tailors and later incorporated into the assemblage and sanctified. A striped fabric (knotted or crochet) sits at center, obscuring the face of the wearer, but allows him to see. The egungun interiors are lined with handwoven oke, a highly valued prestige fabric.  Oke is also used for burial shrouds, which Rebecca pointed out is a symbolic link to the ancestors who are invoked during performances in the egungun. The color red is used extensively to divert evil. Rebecca identified highly valued velvets, needle point, ecclesiastical textiles, Europe satins and cotton prints made expressly for the African market, and Adeara Uraba, a Yoruba indigo cloth that is tie dyed or patterned with a starch resist. Also present were metal pin back political buttons.
Rebecca has examined over 600 different textiles, many of them are African wax (or fancy prints) designed in Europe and produced in Manchester England and Holland to imitate late nineteenth century Indonesian batiks. After decolonization similar prints were manufactured in Africa and East Asia. Rebecca contacted the Manchester School of Art ABC Archive, which has many examples of these fabrics. Initially this gave her great hope of tracing some of the manufacturers of the prints and locking in dates of manufacture, but she was informed that only by chance would one find a match. The prints are too similar to easily identify. She mentioned it as an opportunity for her future study.
Technical analysis included X-radiography, X-ray fluorescence, Raman spectrometry, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, and polarized light microscopy, of the various materials present such as wood, cotton, rayon, pitch, adhesives, metal, elastomeric films, PVC and other plastics.
Rebecca has future research trips planned for this summer and will see eleven other engunguns. She is working to identify the materials in these egungun to construct a time line of what materials were available in Nigeria in the twentieth century. She feels that the whole story will never be know as there are limits to the amount of research that can be carried out, and mid twentieth century fabric trade was complex. The goals of her study are to contribute to the overall “biographies” of these objects, inform future plans for the costumes long-term care, and expand on the available published studies.

One thought on “44th Annual Meeting-Textiles Session, May 15, “Exploring Origins and Power: The technical analysis of two Yoruba masquerade costumes by Rebecca Summerour””

  1. The research work done by Rebecca is commendable. Thanks for making us aware of this vibrant attire worn by Nigerians in the 20th century; it truly is an impressive piece of art with its layers of colorful lappets. I am looking forward towards her future work on Nigerian clothing.

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