By Adebowale Florence
The Epa mask is a ceremonial mask worn by the Yoruba people of Nigeria during the Epa masquerade. The carvings on the mask represent priests, hunters, farmers, kings, and mothers. It is a male deity, who was once a wood carver. Epa is the largest known mask in the whole of Africa and made in Ekiti State.
The mask is used to honour heroes and ancestors. It is specially worn during the Ogun and new yam festival. When the mask is not in use, it is kept in shrine where they are the focus of prayers and offerings from community leaders.
The mask is found in Ilasa-ekiti, Iloro-ekiti, Ikun-Oba-ekiti , Otun- ekiti, Isan Ekiti among other towns in Ekiti State. The Epa masquerade festival is a week-long activity whose purpose is to reinforce the structure of the community.
Epa mask is a Janus faced helmet mask with an elaborate figurative superstructure. It is usually carved with a female or equestrian figure at its center. Surrounding the central figure are typically smaller figures, representing traders, musicians, hunters and other personages central to Yoruba community life. The mask is usually a cut out from iroko, a whole tree trunk called Eruku. All the Epa are pot-shaped helmet mask . The mask weighs 80kg, 4 feet tall, 120cm height and remains the largest known mask in sub Saharan Africa.
The helmet is always simply carved, often with two faces. And it is reminiscent of a mortar or pot. Such similarities are made explicit in the form of helmet, (‘pot’), alluding to it as a container of spiritual power and other worldly force, ase. The eyes of one face are usually carved open, looking out to the world of the living while those on the other side are sealed, contemplating the realm of the divine and ancestors.
Most of Yoruba ceremonies is concerned with controlling and focusing of this divine force for the benefit of the community.
The equestrian figures form the turbulent history and incorporate representations of the channeling of ase to safeguard the conquering hero. The maternity figures invoke “ase” for increasing procreative abilities and fertility while references to medicine also express the dependence of personal well-being on the judicial channeling of ase. Perhaps, the representative clue to the meaning of Epa mask is not to be found in their elaborate superstructures, but in the crude pot helmet itself as a manifestation of the efficacy of ase for communal and personal well-being. To the people, Epa mask represents the concept of beauty , hence the saying in Yoruha “odara bi epa” that is she is as beauty as epa mask.
Many Epa masks bear names like ‘Mother with Children’, ‘Owner of Many Children’, Children Cover Me’ (like a protecting cloth), ‘Children are Honorable to Have’, ‘Bringer of Children’, ‘Mother of Twins’, ‘Nursing Mother’ and many other similar appellations, which occur in the songs that accompany the dancers. Hence this justifies the reason why some Epa mask have a mother, holding a child in breastfeeding position and backing another child as the central figure and being surrounded by many children.
RITUAL CONTEXT OF EPA MASK
The Epa mask are kept by the head of a lineage or town chief on behalf of the lineage or community. When in use , the mask are choreographed as emerging from the bush, where they return once the festival is completed. Offerings are made to the mask before or during the ceremony. The Epa cult stresses the transformation of young men into stalwart specimens able to bear pain and shoulder heavy weight. It further connects with the dignified slow and patient masquerades of ancient men and culture heroes.
Epa mask are used in annual ceremonies held in February or March In some places or as late as September in others to promote fertility and well being of the community. The festival is held yearly in some communities or every two years in others. Also to celebrate the return of warriors to honor Ogun (god of iron) and war. Further to celebrate the growth of new crops, most especially yam. Additionally, Epa mask are used in burial rites relating to titled men in the society. Moreover to augur the quality of the new year , the masker attempts to jump off a mould. A fall or loss of balance is a bad omen which may herald coming misfortune.
FUNCTION OF THE EPA MASK.
RELIGIOUS FUNCTION :
Epa mask represents the spirit of the dead and is regarded as the symbol of the gods. Therefore, it remains the medium through which prayer request reach the gods. Epa mask is adored and prayers are offered through it for protection, fertility, good luck, high crop yield and others. Also, during the festivals, appreciation are rendered for prayers answered and people come from far and near for the festival. Apart from offering general prayers for the people, individuals go to the Epa priest to offer sacrifices, pay homage and offer gifts.
The main social function of Epa mask is entertainment in form of dancing. Maidens dress in special costumes and participate in singing and dancing. The dancing is staged in front of the Oba’s Palace. Although , the dance parade round the town with Epa masquerade stopping at different spots to offer prayers and collect gifts. The climax of the ceremony is the congregational dance at the Oba’s square where different Epa maskers stage dancing competition. The masker must not fall or drop the heavy load on his head. Moreover, this indicates a transition from youthfulness to adulthood as it showcases their endurance quality.
Rather than see masks as formidable, fetish and source of night mares. Individuals need to familiarize themselves with masking and see the Epa mask as one of African most sort after masks. The Epa ceremony will bring to life the ways and fundamentals of our fore bearers. The museum need to include slides and film shows in their exhibition to showcase this festival in order to stimulate people interest in this great cultural heritage. Also museum education officers should include the function of masks in their tour guide. Furthermore, gallery tour need to be more educative to analyze the different motifs found on Epa mask as well as the different types of masks in Nigeria.
Nigerian masks are meant to be part of our total visual and auditory experience which is irrevocably altered once removed from their original settings. Although, the presence of this masks in the museum will afford tourist the opportunity to appreciate the ideas and sculptural ingenuity of our forefathers. The Epa mask remains one of African mysterious mask due to its motifs, design, dimension and structural representation which shows vitality in usage. Moreover, the mask can be considered as a material object in relation to its meta-physic and positioning of the festival in the performance of Èkìtì traditional consciousness. But the Epa ceremony has degenerated due to the advent of Christianity and Islamic religion but the virtues of the Epa masquerading still exist in some parts of Ekiti State.