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Oxygun Rituals In African Art Essay

The Egungun performance is a sect of the community-wide masquerade dances, which are often found in the Yoruba and Benin cultures. These rituals are ancestral masquerades preformed within Yoruba culture and the Republic of Benin. Ancient African rituals vary largely in their performance and meaning. The term Egungun often refers to all masked figures found among the ritual, which are those targeted by Leonce Raphael Abgodjelou in his art exhibit. The Egungun ritual is a performance funeral, marking the passage of the deceased to the spirit world. These gatherings are community-wide, drawing both dancers and audience members to participate.

According to Dr. Charles Fore, senior lecturer in the history of African art, Egungun rituals are “annual festivals held… at the beginning of the rainy season to cleanse the town, but… can also appear at any time to avert major misfortune or affliction that threatens the local community,” as cited by the Huffington Post. The Egungun’s inherent purpose is to specifically guide the community through misfortune, making it one of the most powerful masquerades regarding unity. During the dance, audience members are united to the divine through their spiritual dance.

Abgodjelou’s art represents the caricatures portrayed during the Egungun ritual through contemporary art, embodying not only the rich historical context, but the deeper meaning behind the dance as well. Within these performances, the garb plays a key role in representing the characters of the masquerade. Leonce Raphael Abgodjelou’s artwork portrays a contemporary impression of the rich variation of costume. These costumes are usually intricate, bright and bold, with different layers of fabrics and patterns. Abgodjelou took inspiration from the ritual’s dress, and applied a contemporary application through the rich, vibrant photography.

Beyond this, anonymity of the performer is of the upmost importance in the Egungun. Once the dance begins, the performer “ceases to be himself and he becomes the ancestor, incarnated on earth through bodily gesture and commemorative cloth”. Through his art, the masked models embody the portrayal of masquerade dancers. Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou explores these dynamic tensions in a major series of individual portraits of Egungun that capture both their individual personalities and quirks while making out their power and elusiveness as liminal visitors from the world of the dead.

Yet the contemporary nature of the piece does not fully encompass the ancient historical garb. Vibrant colors, intense visual patterns, and almost flawless ensembles create an idealized version of the Egungun ritual’s garb. However there are still aspects of the pieces that pay homage to the roots of historical Africa. As opposed to photographing models in modern backdrops, Abgodjelou chose to position the characters in ancient, earthy scenes. This factors into the prevalent reference of the ancient African masquerade tradition.

The secondary art piece, a Ngbe society emblem, marks the insignia for the Ngbe people – a cult-like society shrouded in secrecy to the outside word. Never meant for public view, the emblem is a powerful argument for the effectiveness of accumulation in African sculpture. Unlike other art traditions where sculpture is often the work of a single artist, created over a definable period of time, African works often benefited from additions made after their original conception. The visual force of this emblem results from the vast array of material attached to it.

Its final form has been shaped by the subsequent attachments of multiple animal bones — the lower jaw of a chimpanzee, and the skulls of crocodiles, duikers, and forest buffalo — left over from society feasts. The emblem’s visual force comes in part from the subsequent attachment of an array of materials. Its final form has been shaped by the addition of multiple skulls from animals consumed at society feasts: the lower jaw of a chimpanzee, the skulls of crocodiles, duikers, forest buffalo or cows, and the remains of a rodent.

This largely differs from the Egungun adornments, brightly colored and acting as a costume rather than a symbol. Despite arising from a distinct culture, the Ngbe society symbol holds many similarities to the Egungun masquerade in uniqueness, linkage to heritage, and heavy requirement of interpretation. Both pieces of art share a staple to the culture they serve. Historically, each connects members of society to their ancestral roots. Emblems are adorned with the skulls and horns of animals consumed at the feast held at the society’s founding. The emblem plays important role of signaling the Ngbe society’s unanimity.

Never meant for public view, “its access restricted even among society members, the emblem is a powerful argument for the effectiveness of accumulation in African sculpture”. This is similar to the Egungun ritual depictions in Abgodjelou’s art piece. Although the masquerade is portrayed to be open to public view, the true depth of the costumes and their relation to society cannot be truly understood unless the viewer themselves are a part of the group. The Egungun garb is worn as a costume – rather than adorning a village . Yet it still represents aspects of society during masquerades, just as the Ngbe societal symbol does.

Each piece plays a key role in constructing and fastening the environment surrounding them. Although they share their ancient African roots, these two art pieces differ entirely in appearance. The Ngbe society symbol is an art piece that holds a style vastly different than that of the Egungun exhibition. The two pieces contrast largely in many elements of art and design – including color, texture, emphasis, pattern, and movement. The society symbol features earthy undertones with gray, dark color schemes. The texture is rough, natural, and uninhibited. The emphasis of this symbol falls upon the specific pieces of bone, drum, and sand sticks.

The stress falls upon each individual portion, and how it creates the art as a whole. From the intimidation of cracked bone to honor of ancient drum, each piece is a dynamic, distinct addition. The style of art that creates the Egungun ritual garbs largely contrasts the Ngbe’s symbol. Finally, the rhythm, variety, and patter of both the Ngbe societal symbol and Egungun exhibition create unity. Largely relying on the individual portions of art being brought together, each piece contains a plethora of unique portions that come together to create the art as av A drum lies within the center of the piece, to symbolize legislative authority.

The cracked bones create the intimidation met by those not directly involved within society. The pieces of twine and bark create a raw, natural impression, reaffirming the society’s ancient heritage. The styles of the two pieces are in direct contrast, however more distinctions are present than aesthetics. Furthermore, beyond appearance, the societal importance and inherent meaning of each piece are vastly different. Unlike the Egungun ritual’s flagrant, outgoing nature, the Ngbe society emblem is an art piece heavy-laden with a subtle, secret atmosphere.

The symbol serves two meanings – one for those invited within the society, and one for those who are not. For those within, the Ngbe symbol holds the secrets of society. It involves Ngbe community members in a brotherhood that holds a commitment to community. For those outside of this circle, the Ngbe societal symbol is largely intimidating. The emblem acts as a signal of fear and terrorization, warning those unfamiliar that they are unwelcomed. Without being directly involved in the society, not only would ritual participation be impossible, but any inclusion in the society would be as well.

Similarly, the masquerade ritual serves to legitimize the power of the ruling class and commemorate the queen mother. To truly understand the depth and intensity behind the dance, a direct connection to the performance must be present. To a “westerner with a desire for observable facts and quantifiable data the non-compartmentalized nature of Egungun performance is difficult to fully understand. Those uninvolved directly would neither understand, nor be welcomed into this ritual. This sense of secrecy is not unique to the societal symbol.

While the art form and meaning may be different, it inherently possesses the same exclusivity as the Ngbe society emblem. When questioned of the Egungun ritual,”some profess ignorance, others narrate ‘stories of origin’, others, especially cult members, refuse to divulge what they regard as cult secrets” . Egungun rituals are much more public – yet still requires participation to truly grasp meaning. For example, one could discern the representation behind Egungun rituals from researched text. However the emotional impact the dance brings on the village can only truly be experienced from firsthand accounts, unreachable by outsiders.

From his work, Leonce Raphael Abgodjelou pays homage to the rich style and history of the Egungun garb and ritual, while conveying the air of independent confidence held by the dancers. Holding to historical roots, each of Leonce Raphael’s photos are unique and anonymous. The model cannot be seen directly, but is represented entirely by their costume – which is unique. Each texture, pattern, and color creates a unique persona that allows the dance to remain anonymous. The models are united through their rich garb, but still portray their unique approach to the costume.

They are individuals banded together by their allegiance to ancestral worship. Yet beyond this, the performer’s body that must be able to shed itself of any recognizable characteristics in order to become a blank slate onto which the movements and gestures of the ancestor are inscribed and enacted. The spectators fully accept this transformation as real. They are able to see the performer, then, as both human and spirit. However, to insure that the “secret will [not] leak” spectators are expected to say nothing of the performer’s mortal nature”.

Leonce Raphael insures that those featured in his artwork are defined by their costume. The ideas and experiences that traditionally emerge during Egungun rituals are eloquently portrayed in still frames. Despite an inability to view the dance itself, Abhodielou possesses the ability to convey the significance of the ritual garb. During the dance, each dancer risks their reputation, subject to judgment from their costume, mask, and dance. For this reason, these dancers are forced to maintain composure and preform to the utmost of their abilities.

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