Exhibitions aren’t always cooked up in the curatorial mind kitchen. Sometimes they are born of unexpected partnerships and opportunities. The newly opened exhibition Powers Concealed: Egúngúns from Africa and America began with a suggestion.
The NCMA’s Education team was interested in creating immersive, 3-D experiences of NCMA artworks for NCMALearn and wondered if perhaps one of the historical egúngún ensembles could be animated in performance. Since only highly trained priests and specialists are allowed to handle and/or perform egúngúns, and the NCMA objects are too fragile for such animation, this was naturally out of the question. However, as steward of these objects, I decided to take this interesting request to task as a positive opportunity rather than a dead-end “no.” In researching potential community partnerships, I connected with the Oyotunji African Village and Kingdom of South Carolina, who, as it turns out, practice Yorùbá religion and have related masquerade societies, or Egbe Egun. I continued to inform my own understanding of this masquerade, and it became even more meaningful, more relevant, and more widespread than I could have imagined.
But Hang On … What is Egúngún?
Egúngún means “powers concealed” and refers to both the masquerade itself and the embodiment of the supernatural power resident in ancestors. As returned ancestors, egúngúns bridge the living with the spiritual world. Created with layers of sumptuous, paneled fabrics sourced locally and globally, egúngúns typically appear at annual festivals to honor the ancestors and seek blessings for the community. Since ancestors continue to guide and shape us in the present, we honor them when we remember the lessons they have taught us.
“Egúngún is about ancestors, the ones who came before us … The family, the ancestors, are the foundation … Knowing who you are is part of knowing about who your family is and who your ancestors were. If you don’t understand your past, you can’t fully understand your present situation. If you don’t understand your present, then how are you going to navigate to your future?”
— Chief Alàgbà Ajeyefa Babatunde Akinsegun and Oloko Oludele, Oyotunji African Village
Though egúngún originated in Nigeria, it is now honored and performed throughout Africa and the world—from the Republic of Benin and Sierra Leone in Africa to parts of the Caribbean and the Americas. Despite its dispersal and various site-specific innovations, egúngún is generally used to mark important moments in human lives, to provide conduits between the living and the departed, to raise funds for community endeavors such as education, and to entertain or instruct—always responding to responsibilities and needs of the present.
A Partnership Is Born
While the NCMA’s 1930s egúngún from Nigeria that started it all was in fact 3-D scanned and modeled for educational purposes, we also took the opportunity to attend Oyotunji’s 2021 Egúngún Festival, which happens annually in May. A team of NCMA staff and videographers filmed the performances and interviewed Oyotunji Egbe and community members. We were so impressed with the four ensembles and performances that we requested to borrow one of them, and the idea for an exhibition began to take shape. However, such ensembles are active with ancestral energy and such a loan was (rightly) refused—the ensemble needed to remain with its community for their own spiritual purposes. Through conversations we were able to commission a copy of the Baba Eleko we saw perform—which honors teachers and students—for our own Education collection. It being owned by the Education Department means it can perform in collaboration with Oyotunji in the future, but it also signaled the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Indeed, along with the performance footage we shot, it is a major component of the Powers Concealed exhibition.
Further, the more I dug, the more I realized that the egúngún masquerade is so impactful, so powerful that not only has it migrated to other countries and communities worldwide, but other contemporary artists have been mobilizing it in their own work. For example Peju Alatise implicates it as a way to tackle issues of purity, “contamination,” and spectatorship in regards to religious practices. As Alatise notes in her artist statement for Iagbaja, Tameju ati Ogbeni (Anybody, Nobody, and Somebody), “No society of sound mind can claim the absolute purity of its culture. I want to be part of those that evolve the egúngún practice while maintaining the engagement of past knowledge and wisdom.”
Another artist to critically analyze and engage with egúngún is Atlanta-based Dr. Fahamu Pecou. Along with Baba Eleko and the NCMA egúngún, Pecou’s work is on view in Powers Concealed. His contemporary egúngún entitled New World Egungun examines the political and social violence enacted upon Black male bodies in the United States. Through this egúngún Pecou allows those lost—Martin, Medgar, George, Malcolm, and so many more—to revisit the living with healing and protection. The epidemic of Black male death in America can thus be transformed into a radical act of agency that brings power to the community of the living, and reminds us to not only witness, but to act.
“The work itself is art as resistance: resistance to Black trauma; resistance to the spectacle of Black death … It’s a way of raising up lost spirits, activating their power, affirming our own.”
—Dr. Fahamu Pecou
Where Is Egúngún?
Although egúngún originated in Nigeria, it is a global phenomenon reaching far into the past and very much into a contemporary present. It is honored and performed in other parts of Africa, in the Caribbean, and in the Americas. I’ve personally seen it in Sierra Leone, where it is part of what is called the “Ojeh” Society yet looks strikingly similar to the glittery, sequined egúngúns performed in the Republic of Benin, two of which are in the NCMA collections.
Powers Concealed thus demonstrates that, despite the pressures of cataclysmic global change, masquerade remains one of the most impressive, prolific, and persistent aspects of African and diaspora artistic production today. Yet few contemporary masquerades appear in museum galleries or collections. In bringing a historical Nigerian egúngún in conversation with two contemporary egúngúns by artists and communities in South Carolina and Georgia, the exhibition connects past with present, spiritual with tangible, and political with individual expression to show how one global contemporary phenomenon can be mobilized to make change, educate, and heal. In emphasizing this mobilization—and the ways egúngúns are used by communities close at hand as well as across time and space—the artists show us that not only is masquerade a hypercontemporary art form, it is truly a global one. Further, such communal and spiritual manifestations are essential to powerful and radical acts of community—and the opportunity for intangible partnerships to be made tangible.
Art historian Alexis Clark draws a sharp distinction between two very different artists’ studios, in the same city, four decades apart.
Curator Amanda M. Maples describes the fruitful partnership between the NCMA and the Oyotunji African Village in South Carolina, which led to a revelatory new exhibition.