New exhibit pushes viewers to connect with an African tradition of honoring ancestors

As you enter the Ruth Davis Design Gallery in the School of Human Ecology, a lively beat of drums and singing hums in the background.

A deep pink costume adorned with shiny beads and sequins stands tall in the front window, its many layers nearly reaching the ceiling. The piece slowly spins in circles, bringing to life the spinning dances of Egúngún masquerades, which are celebrations of the ancestors among Yorùbá peoples of West Africa.

Toward the back of the gallery, a video of Egúngún festivals in Nigeria and South Carolina plays. The costumed dancers whirl around in circles and interact with audience members. The audience never sees the dancers inside because the performers “become the ancestors they’re dancing to celebrate,” says David Newell, director of exhibitions and outreach at the Ruth Davis Design Gallery.

“The costumes have these hanging panels that flare out like propeller blades and they also create a breeze,” Newell says. “It’s referred to as the breeze of blessing. Basically it is your ancestors are reaching out to you and that is the essence of them touching you, is the breeze that’s created by these costumes spinning around.”

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