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Art

A Museum’s Quest to Find a Looted Yorùbá Costume’s Original Owners

Yorùbá artist, Egúngún Masquerade Dance Costume (“paka egúngún’’), ca. 1920-48. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Yorùbá artist, Egúngún Masquerade Dance Costume (“paka egúngún’’), ca. 1920-48. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Over the last few decades, reckonings of all manner have rocked the foundational ways we have consumed and understood works of art as well as the narratives that inform them. In museums, often the most public-facing arenas to experience art, statistical analyses have shown a profound lack of gender and racial equity, from leadership, staffing, and wage gaps, down to the makeup of the collections themselves. Cultural producers are being called on to adjust our lenses and course-correct from centuries of skewed perspectives that have excluded women, non-binary, and non-white people. We must reexamine every facet of what we think we know and question who benefits from our cultural institutions to holistically honor our humanity and that of others.
Photo by Lina de Volder, via Flickr.

Photo by Lina de Volder, via Flickr.

The restitution of African artworks from Western institutions is an issue at the forefront of these investigations. African countries have called for the return of ill-gotten cultural heritage items for decades, but this past November, an investigative report by Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy made waves. They recommended that French museums repatriate African artworks with questionable provenance. Many of these objects are not merely works of art; they are spirit-filled objects with living histories and very real activations for the people who originally owned them.
One: Egúngún,” an exhibition currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, focuses on a Yorùbá egúngún costume acquired by the museum in 1998. The show makes a radical statement about how institutions can handle African patrimony. The exhibition shows unusual respect for the Nigerian community from which the object hailed. Although this is not the first time the museum has displayed the costume, it is the first time such thorough research has been conducted to contextualize the object’s meanings and origins. Dr. Kristen Windmuller-Luna, the museum’s consulting curator of African art, engaged the Nigerian family from whom the egúngún was stolen seven decades ago as well as Yorùbá communities in Nigeria and Brooklyn (the show is the first at the museum to include wall texts in English and Yorùbá).
Yorùbá artist, Prestige robe (“agbádá or dàńdógó”), 20th century. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Yorùbá artist, Prestige robe (“agbádá or dàńdógó”), 20th century. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

“Egúngún means ‘power concealed’ in the Yorùbá language,” explained Dr. Matthew Rarey, assistant professor of art history at Oberlin College specializing in the art of the Black Atlantic. Mounted to honor and celebrate ancestors, for funerary processions, and community celebrations, the masquerade tradition is still practiced in Yorùbáland in southwestern Nigeria, southeastern Benin, and the Yorùbá diaspora. There are many styles of egúngún, but the most prevalent in museum spaces typically consist of carefully collected fabrics sewn into overlapping lappet panels to form a stunning costume that completely conceals the wearer. When a performer dons the costume, the panels undulate and swing with every motion. The Brooklyn Museum’s example is composed of 300 unique fabrics from across Africa, Asia, and Europe. Its grand construction reflects the power and prestige of the realm where the ancestors dwell. The more elaborate the masquerade, the more venerated that family’s ancestors—and the more blessed and pious the family—is considered.
Photo by Lina de Volder, via Flickr.

Photo by Lina de Volder, via Flickr.

Photo by Lina de Volder, via Flickr.

Photo by Lina de Volder, via Flickr.

In Summer 2018, Windmuller-Luna began a journey to find the family in Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́, Nigeria, to whom this costume originally belonged. With the help of a network of Nigerian scholars in Oyo State including Dr. D.O. Makinde, she was able to locate and make contact with the family. It was from them that she learned that the costume was stolen around 1948. Yet the rest of the costume’s provenance is still mysterious. No one is exactly sure who took it; Windmuller-Luna suggested during a walkthrough of the exhibition that it may have been a jealous family member. The piece was gifted to the museum in 1998 by Sam Hilu, a collector and dealer of rare textiles, but where he acquired it from is also unknown.
The curator first asked the elders of the Lekewọgbẹ family if they wanted the costume returned. After a divination ceremony which determined that the masquerade had been effectively “de-powered,” or stripped of its spiritual force (called axé in Yorùbá), the family allowed the Brooklyn Museum to keep it. This process of in-depth exchange with the Lekewọgbẹs and their extended community led Windmuller-Luna to create an exhibition that celebrates and emphasizes, as the exhibition website notes, “the global connections of African masquerades while challenging the misconception that cultural practices are static.”
Yorùbá artist, Egúngún Masquerade Dance Costume (“paka egúngún”) detail, ca. 1920-48. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Yorùbá artist, Egúngún Masquerade Dance Costume (“paka egúngún”) detail, ca. 1920-48. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Yorùbá artist, Egúngún Masquerade Dance Costume (“paka egúngún”) detail, ca. 1920-48. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Yorùbá artist, Egúngún Masquerade Dance Costume (“paka egúngún”) detail, ca. 1920-48. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

There is an approach to the development of epistemology in the West that more often than not precludes knowledge from people of color and women. The simple but radical gesture that Windmuller-Luna made with “One: Egúngún” was to fully embrace the oral histories and traditional knowledge of the Yorùbá in a manner based on mutual respect. “The only way we should be researching, discussing, displaying things is in deep and mutual conversation with the community that they come from,” Rarey said. This model of critical engagement is necessary for what Rarey calls the “ethical attunement” of the field of art history. I will take a step further and say that ethical attunement should be the basic requirement not just within art history but in the world at large. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re hearing them, regardless of what the outcome of that conversation is,” Rarey intimated.
This exhibition begs an important question: Before this moment, who has the study and display of egúngún—and by extension, the objects of other African and indigenous communities—been for? While the methodology behind Windmuller-Luna’s research is relatively straightforward, few others have done it before. The exhibition is instructive; it could become a touchstone for an ethical model of engaging with cultural heritage objects, as well as the living histories and communities connected to them.
Niama Safia Sandy