I wrote this essay immediately after watching the film Aramotu with a colleague from work, that was months ago. I delayed posting because I wanted to learn more about the gelede masks in Yoruba tradition (and I won’t lie, also because I grew distracted with other things).
Aramotu is an amazing movie that has a lot to say not only about feminism and women’s rights among the Yoruba, but the film also manages to criticise colonialism and despotic leaders. Aramotu tells a great story and features wonderful acting that made my friend and I burst out laughing in the cinema at some of the things said that do not translate fully into English but were hilarious in Yoruba. Were I to summarise Aramotu in a sentence it would be; ‘popular uprising initiated by a woman, spread to the community through song and amplified by the supernatural forces surrounding Aramotu’s death’.
While watching the movie I kept on wondering about the gelede tradition, I finally wrote about my knowledge of gelede, which you can read here. Initially, when I learnt of gelede masquerade and how they are worn in celebration and praise of female elders, I assumed the gelede masks were worn by women. However, the truth is that gelede masquerades are men in women’s clothing, these men cross dress as women to praising womanhood and femininity, along with the ‘power’ that women hold.
Aramotu, the movie asks questions and seems to criticise the gelede and events surrounding the wearing of the gelede masks as allowing women to be praised and celebrated only within the patriarchal framework. Hence, while we have events that are supposedly in favour of women, concepts that supposedly empower women, they are actually thriving in an environment that seeks to limit and control women. As director Niji Akanni, says;
“Yoruba women from time immemorial are very hard working. They were actually the pillars of the society but being a patriarchal society, their contributions have always been underplayed, understated or even never acknowledged at all. At the same time, our myths give prominence to women. We venerate our women in myths but in actual history we tend to downplay their contributions to society, we tend to oppress them. So, that inconsistency between history and myth was what struck me about Aramotu. How can a culture venerate its women so much in myth, in stories but contemporary history tend to downplay them. Look at Moremi Ajasoro, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and all that.
Osun, Yemoja, they were living human beings, they actually made immense contributions to the society at the period they lived but we tend to relegate those figures to mythical proportions. We never really acknowledge what they did. Even Moremi, she is known more as a mythical figure than the activist she was in her time.” Read more.
Aramotu, the eponymous character is a mother of two and a successful trader who regularly travels outside the village of Agesi to acquire goods that she sells in the marketplace. (Thus it is already clear that boundaries mean very little to her). She is married to a man, Akanmu who apparently cares for and loves her despite the taunts and jeers of his fellow men, women and family who believe that he is being cuckolded by Aramotu. He is called the ‘wife’ while Aramotu is called the ‘husband’, you can see glimpses of the way Akanmu is treated in the movie trailer (which sadly does not have English subtitles).
Aramotu is also a woodcarver, a profession that is forbidden for women to practice. Aramotu secretly carves wood usually in the middle of the night and in private room separate from the one she shares with her husband. Aramotu is centred on her craving a gelede mask to be worn by her fellow artist friend, Gbegiro for the festival in which the gelede masquerades dance during the Efe night. Aramotu is shown to be an innovative artist, she carves two faces onto her mask as opposed to the regular one face. Because of her innovation, she is chosen to become a member of the elusive yet powerful Cult of the Spider, a women’s secret society that is supposedly dangerous.
As the movie progresses, we see that things are not particularly good for women in the village. The men, spurred by the council of elders, have seized farmlands belonging to their wives so as to grow cash crops, such as banana and rubber, which they can sell to European traders. The women are distraught because they consider the farmland to be theirs to grow food on. The council of elders are only interested in generating wealth for themselves and though her husband warns her against it, Aramotu leads the women in a revolt against these self-serving ideas. Meanwhile, Aramotu’s husband grows frustrated with what he believes is his wife’s lack of submission to his authority, he takes another wife (a woman that Aramotu provides shelter for in her home due to her running away from her own home).
Along with her fellow artist friend, Gbegiro, Aramotu plans to use the gelede mask she is carving and selected songs to taunt the corrupt leaders of Agesi. She wants to use this vehicle to let encourage the leaders to do the right thing and to stop oppressing women in Agesi as Aramotu cannot openly challenge Iyalode who considers herself to be the voice of all the women in the village and represents them in the council of elders. Eventually, when it is discovered that Aramotu carves she is ostracised by her community. I found it extremely ironic, that a woman was severely punished for carving masks for a masquerade that is supposed to celebrate femininity and womanhood. I always had this image of gelede in my mind as something fascinatingly feminist in pre-colonial Yoruba culture.
While I could not see anything so abominable about Aramotu’s carving (I did not even initially understand why she crept out of bed with her husband to carve by a small flame in a secluded room), but of course society did. In the scene before Aramotu is killed for being a witch, she tells the Chief Priest that all she wanted to do was to utilise her God-given gifts, her arts to speak out on what she considered to be the ills of the Agesi society. She wanted to challenge the maltreatment of women within the community and provide a better life and education for the children. And the reply from the council of elders (all men and one woman) was, yes Aramotu’s intentions were honourable but were ultimately against tradition. She was accused of going against the Mother Earth when in only a few scenes earlier, she dreamt of the messenger from the Cult of the Spider telling her that anything she does was in line with the Mother Earth and would please Mother Earth. This raises questions, who had/has it right?
Gelede masquerades in action
I cannot help but think of traditions from other cultures that began as female only, these traditions were nurtured by women before tables turned and they became the domain of men. Examples include kabuki
, a classical Japanese form of drama which started out as an all-female type of dance drama begun by a woman Izumo no Okuni
. In the era of female kabuki, women played both male and female roles, eventually it was banned for being too profane and erotic. Women were banned from performing in kabuki
plays and now kabuki seems to be entirely the domain of men who play both male and female roles (onnagata
) today. Kabuki was introduced to me as an exclusively male form of stage play, thus I was really surprised to learn about Izumo no Okuni.
Interestingly, in Aramotu after the gelede mask with two faces appears and openly calls out the council of elders for their selfish and oppressive laws, the leaders outlawed the gelede festival. Even the villagers found it strange, the festivities surrounding the gelede masquerades had never been interrupted previously. Nevertheless the leaders, removed the masquerades that placate female elders to replace them with masquerades that drive everyone indoors and can kill on sight.
I wonder if gelede could have started out like kabuki. Women using masquerades to celebrate womanhood before it became men using masquerades to celebrate womanhood, while women were sidelined within the very communities and cultures that claim to celebrate them. Of course, I could be wrong and this may all be wishful thinking.
Only certain kinds of womanhood and femininity are celebrated within a patriarchy, in the movie the character of Iyalode represents the celebrated woman. Aramotu is the woman that challenges tradition and mores, she symbolises change that the oppressive elders/leaders are scared of. On the other hand, Iyalode does not challenge anything or anyone. Iyalode is the leader of all the women in the community and she has some power as the only woman to sit in the council of elders with other men. She does not challenge her fellow power holders, she too seeks to benefit from the gains they will achieve. It is not until Aramotu is dead and her restless spirit brings omens upon the community that Iyalode is exiled from the community along with the other corrupt elders.
However in reality, when innovative people are wrongly killed there is no magic to bring justice to them and to ensure that their visions are upheld. Aramotu ended on a somewhat positive note as before Aramotu died, almost as if she knew she was going to be killed, she hid her wealth and instructed the women of Agesi to take all the fortune she had amassed in her life.
Sometimes watching a Yoruba movie feels like reading a work of speculative fiction. A lot of Nigerians I know seem to detest the ‘supernatural element’ in several Yoruba movies, in fact I came across a review of Aramotu that basically said the movie would have been great if not for the distressing inclusion of the supernatural element. I love watching Yoruba movies where things caused by magic happen and in which evil is resolved by priests of the traditional religion. Excluding the fact that movie centres around masquerades, Aramotu includes such gems as The Ritual of the Death Wish, the Cult of the Spider, the Ritual of Appeasement…I enjoyed watching the movie doubly because of things like this. The masquerades really, I didn’t know about the Oro mummers, ‘the masquerades that sometimes kill’ my colleague whispered to me in the darkness of the cinema. I mean I always thought masquerades beat and kill people but the only Yoruba masquerades I know a few things about are the gelede.
In addition, in the Malian film Taafé Fanga, there was a certain buzzing sound that announced the coming of the Albarga masquerade. This buzzing sound was also present in Aramotu and announced the coming of the Oro mummers, so that people would have ample time to run and hide in the their homes. I found this fascinating.
The acting was superb, Idiat Shonibare who played Aramotu delivered her role excellently. It was due to her acting that I found Aramotu’s character even more inspirational. Though Idiat Shonibare is apparently a newcomer, there are other faces in Aramotu that any Yoruba movie aficionado would recognise such as Ireti Osayemi-Bakare and Kayode Odumosu.
Despite my obvious love for Aramotu, I have the same old issues with this movie that I have with other Yoruba historical films that are otherwise awesome. While the special effects were nothing to write home about, they were not tragically horrible.
The clothes worn in the movie were pretty awesome. There was aso oke and some outfits made with wax print which makes sense considering the history of Dutch wax prints in West Africa. It comes as no surprise to me that Aramotu won an award in the ‘Best Costume Design’ category at the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA). I also adored Aramotu‘s depiction of men playing ayo to pass time and to joke around. Furthermore, there was a scene in which Aramotu was using a washboard, this may seem insignificant but I think it is awesome as I believe that scene challenges the notion that everyone in pre-colonial Africa washed at the stream instead of in the convenience of their homes.
Despite the awesomeness of the costumes, I was not too pleased with the setting and also the hairstyles of the female characters in a movie that is set in Yoruba history. I am not going to get tired of bringing up this lack of creativity with natural or otherwise ‘local’ hairstyles in African historical fiction and movies, until it is resolved. At the same time, I understand that it may not be easy finding a Yoruba-speaking actress (or actresses for that matter) that have the kind of natural hair that can be styled like those old-school hairstyles in images such at the one on the right.
Click image for source
The use of wigs and hair extensions will usually solve this problem. To be honest, I would prefer even thread to the all-back and chuku they like to give female characters in the Yoruba historical movies I have seen. Igbo historical movies seems to have more creativity on this side.
The houses shown in Aramotu had corrugated iron sheet roofs…my colleague rightly said that people are still living like that today. At first I wondered if Yoruba villages in 1909 had roofs made of corrugated iron but a quick search online let me know that it was possible (corrugated galvanised iron was invented in the 1820s). While I cannot speak much on the history accuracy on this part, I can say that if houses from villages that stand today were used in shooting Aramotu I would be dissatisfied.
As a lover of most things related to African history, especially fiction and films, I long for the days that African historical movies on the level of say my favourite Korean historical dramas, Queen Seon Duk or Hwang Jin Yi, will come into existence. In those productions, it is pretty clear the amount of care that was taken into building settings and wardrobe (costume and hairstyles). Perhaps if more money was spent on Aramotu the people working behind the scenes would have produced an elaborate story, this backed with a good storyline, excellent moral message and a healthy does of magic in the ‘supernatural element’ would be awesome.
Aramotu is a film that attempts to understand the tendency to erase strong women in Yoruba history, relegating them and their contributions to myths. The film tells the story of a female woodcarver with forward thinking ideas and the price a patriarchal society forces her to pay for thinking and acting ‘out of her place’. While few issues detract from the film, overall Aramotu is a movie with a very important message.