Sacred Women, Shifting Surfaces

Mask (Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́), 19th century
Wood and paint

Shifts in taste and context prompted dramatic changes to the surfaces of these wooden depictions of revered female figures. The Western market for African arts has long favored works that bear visual traces of previous use and therefore suggest a sense of authenticity. The original owners of Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ masks from Nigeria repainted them with vivid colors before yearly performances, but this mask entered the European market before repainting and thus retains only faint traces of pigment. During the same century that the mask was carved, an art dealer or collector stripped the original paint from the German statue of Mary (at right) and stained it dark brown to fit with the fashion of the times, irreversibly altering its appearance. In both cases, changing tastes in art and the art market shaped our expectations about the appearance of certain objects.

Mourning Madonna, early 16th century

Motherhood—and the wisdom, experience, and power it implies—is celebrated in art the world over. The Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ mask from Nigeria (at left) is performed as part of an annual Yoruba masquerade in honor of Ìyá Nlá (Great Mother) and, by extension, all women in the community. Demonstrating respect for the power of motherhood, the masquerade maintains societal harmony by acknowledging female power in an otherwise male-dominated society. Originally worn with an elaborate costume and heralded with praise songs, this particular Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ mask depicts a priestess with an elaborate hairstyle. Hands clasped and gaze fixed, the Virgin Mary is depicted here as mater dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows). A potent object of faith in a German church, she guided worshipers to focus on the sorrows of Mary, and, ultimately, on the compassion and suffering shared with her son, Jesus Christ.