Black History Month 2020: Yoruba Woman and Child

October is Black History Month in the UK, an event that has been celebrated nationwide for over 30 years. Originally founded to recognise the contributions that people of African and Caribbean backgrounds have made to the UK, it has expanded to include the history of black people in general.

Those of you have visited our World Stories gallery will already know that we have collections from all over the world. Over the month of October, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the objects with hidden black histories that aren’t told within the confines of our gallery.

Today we are looking at the wooden figure of a woman carrying a child on her back and a ceremonial mask used in the gelede – two objects celebrating motherhood amongst the Yoruba people of West Africa.

Yoruba is both a language and a people forming one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. The Yoruba people have lived on the African continent for centuries, and archaeological evidence confirms that there was a powerful and well-structured Yoruba kingdom organised around powerful city-states in Southwest Nigeria. Today the Yoruba people are mainly concentrated around Nigeria, Benin, Togo and part of Ghana.

Figure of a Yoruba Woman and Child, Southern Nigeria.

This small wooden figure depicts a Yoruba woman from Southern Nigeria carrying a child on her back. The women is depicted carrying her baby with a baby sash called an ‘iro’ which is often used in combination with an additional piece of fabric called ‘oja’ to reinforce the back support for the baby, especially if she is carrying a toddler.

Yoruba mother and child (from Memorials of Anna Hinderer published in 1877)

There are several lines or marks on her face and these represent tribal scars which are an important part of traditional Yoruba culture. Created by burning or cutting the skin in childhood, these marks would have identified the woman’s family or regional heritage. The use of these tribal marks is now fading amongst the Yoruba and some states have made these marks and tattoos illegal.

The second object that we would like to look at is a mask which was used in elaborate masquerade performances known as ‘gelede’ which are still held among the Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria and the Republic of Benin.

Although we have referred to it as a mask this object would better be described as a headdress and would have rested on top of the performer’s head with a veil covering the face. This particular headdress takes the form of a human head or ‘Ori Eniyan’ – the most common form of headdress used in the gelede. On the top of the there are several facial decorations representing marks and tattoos, which are intended to entertain onlookers and address the social concerns expressed in songs as part of the masquerade.

These headdresses are worn with a costume of layers of elaborate, colourful cloth which relate directly to the connection between women and motherhood in society. Gelede costumes often include baby sashes, metal anklets and coloured panels and are accompanied by a horsetail whisk, and a fan. An ‘iro’ or baby sash – such as also worn in the wooden figure – is a common costume element which represents a breast-feeding mother, whilst also acting as a practical support for the costume itself.

A modern Gelede performance

The ‘gelede’ performances are held in public and combine art and ritual dance to amuse, educate and inspire worship. Only Yoruba men are permitted to perform these displays although they are primarily intended celebrate fertility, motherhood and the power and spirituality that Yoruba women have within society – whether in the form of goddesses or embodied in the older women and mothers of the community.

Many Yoruba people in the United Kingdom moved here as a result of the political and economic upheavals that took place in Nigeria between the 1960s and 1980s, whilst many people with Yoruba heritage in the Americas are descended from the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Benin who were forcibly transported to America as slaves. As the Yoruba were amongst the last West African peoples to be captured and sent to the Americas before the slave trade came to an end they have retained much of their original culture and expanded elements of it across many borders — to Trinidad, Cuba, Saint Lucia, Togo, Brazil, Guyana, Haiti and Jamaica to name but a few.

Many of the slaves forcibly imported to the modern United States from Benin were sold by the King of Dahomey in Whydah. It is to this historic kingdom in West Africa that our attention turns in the next of these blogs celebrating black history month.

For more about Black History month in the UK please visit the website at