The cover of this collection shows a Guro mask in action. It's a lively picture—the dancer wears a red mask and a colorful costume with many shades of red that make it stand out against a background of sandy soil and youthful onlookers. The photo obviously registers as performance.
Seeing it for the first time prompted me to do some research on the Internet, and YouTube has yielded a wealth of clips showing the same type of mask in movement1: the very specific, virtuosic, energetic dance that belongs to this mask has changed my view of the image completely; the horizontal bands of different colors, so typical of this mask's costume, reinforce in a very theatrical way the dancer's movements, to mention only one aspect of how looking beyond an object can enhance the understanding and appreciation of it.
The book offers essays alternating between English and French, with no translations provided. In her introduction, editor Anne-Marie Bouttiaux explains that the collection of studies in this volume printed here is a kind of sequel to her exhibition “Persona” in Brussels in 2009–2010. Many vital aspects that can't be treated within a museum space are addressed here through contributions by several scholars. Whereas museums reduce masks to static objects (thus permitting them to embark upon a second life as aesthetic and economic artifacts), the authors, by way of detailed research, set out to demonstrate the range of actions, thoughts, intentions, and emotions connected to masked performances, thereby shedding light on the dynamics of their first life.
West Africa is the focus locale for its abundance of masked performances and practices in very different contexts spread out throughout this vast region: contributors have studied material from Senegal to Benin, passing through Guinée-Conakry, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
Joël Noiret's article presents an unusually engaging description of Egun ceremonies in southern Benin. The emphasis he places on the emotional reactions elicited by the Egun, and especially Ago, performances is quite justified: I remember them well from a ceremony I witnessed in the same city a couple of years prior to Noiret's visit. Contemplating an Egun mask in a museum's collection in itself would never conjure up this essential aspect of the ceremony.
Bouttiaux's contribution on Guro masks in the northern part of Guro country of Côte d'Ivoire strikes me as ongoing research. After a short and very adequate historical and geographical introduction of the region, addressing its political and religious life, she zooms in on a category of masks reportedly regarded with disdain by collectors and museums because of their ostentatiously modern look, concluding that those are the masks that are most appreciated locally, precisely because of their bright colors and shiny surfaces.
She identifies and compares three types of female masks in the category of entertainment. She carefully avoids stereotyping and thus succeeds in presenting the masks in all their complexity in a continuously changing world. Her discourse interweaves gender issues, but she draws no conclusions other than maintaining the earlier viewpoint that Guro men compensate for loss in warfare and hunting through the control of masking practices, including the exclusion of women. Recent instability and violence in Côte d'Ivoire would justify further study of this subject.
The most striking aspect of her description is how much the mask rituals, ceremonies, and performances kick up an atmosphere of danger and risk. She successfully stresses this very important point in the context of mask rituals, important because the sense of danger related to these rituals does influence everyday lives in many parts of West Africa.
Bony Guiblehon's essay analyses how an essential part of Wè traditional institutions, Koui mask, became instrumental in dealing with violent disruptions of recent decades that particularly affected the western part of the nation. His sometimes highly abstract approach alternates with very concrete examples of the processes he describes and analyses.
His conclusion that the Wè turn to the ancient spirituality of the Koui under the stressful insecurities of modern life and Ivorian conflict is indeed an interesting one, especially in light of the huge crowds drawn by new religious evangelical sects advertising on roadside billboards in and around Abidjan. One may assume that rural communities might react differently to the same conflicts.
Guiblehon's is the only contribution in this aptly illustrated collection that does not contain photographic images, but instead shows only two miniscule maps, which are impossible to read without a magnifying glass.
The last essay focusing on masquerade practices from Côte d'Ivoire is Karel Arnaut's on Bedu practice in the north-eastern part of the country. His fieldwork in the Bondougou region, which forms the empirical basis of this article, produces fascinating insights reflected in the photographic material that accompanies it. The images hint at the impact as well as the aesthetic and dramatic aspects of Bedu mask practices. The dialectic character of the rituals is very well presented and the materialist approach does justice to its subject, thus avoiding a reductionist viewpoint.
Arnaut's approach to the practice inspired a vivid account of the multiple functions of Bedu masks, thus illustrating convincingly their dynamics. I've always appreciated Bedu masks as theatrical, abstract, modernist, and aesthetically very rewarding; after reading Arnaut a whole dimension has been added to my appreciation.
Moving to Mali, Philippe Jesper's essay on the complex world of Komo masquerade shows detailed and profound knowledge as well as understanding of the very complex animist cosmogony and practices within the Muslim context of Minyaka society. He explains the dialectic principles of Komo brotherhoods and illustrates their practices with elaborate accounts of the rituals, gradually unfolding their mysteries. An initiate himself, he has gained a well-developed insight into the rich spiritual, physical, and philosophical world of his subject. The essay is not easy to follow, but surely worth close scrutiny, adding new dimensions to the dynamics of masks.
Eastern Senegal is the region where one still finds a group called Bedik, a small collective that has surprisingly withstood conversion to Islam. Marie-Paule Ferry's contribution describes the vivid mask rituals that are organised around cycles of two or four years strictly involving either men or women; the latter's rituals do not involve masks. When masks appear on official occasions like initiation rites or fecundity festivals, they happily do dance with women, however, leading Ferry to conclude that they function as a means for men to control the power of women and perhaps even aspire to the primordial power of giving birth.2
Guy le Moal's chapter, although referring to fieldwork of forty years ago, stresses the importance of ethnographic film. The film of his focus, first shown at the Tervuren museum in 1977, is still fully available for viewing through the CNRS website.3 Of particular interest here are Bobo masks, consisting of plant leaves that completely cover the wearer.
The moving images have quite a remarkable impact, especially if one considers that these masks have not found their second life in museum collections, as they are of ephemeral substances and rather crudely shaped. But seeing them in full action, running through the fields and roaming the streets, shows that the impact they have is rather spectacular.
Masks' potential as agents of power runs through most of the chapters in this volume, but Cesare Poppi focuses explicitly on this aspect. He describes stages of initiation among Gur-Grushi in north-western Ghana within the framework of Sigma masks. Initiated himself, Poppi has first-hand experience of the complicated, rich, and dialectic process of inclusion-exclusion that is at the root of society membership.
Starting with a remarkable example of the “paradox of secrecy,” which he describes with a cinematographic eye for detail, he takes us along the subsequent hierarchical grades of initiation. The process of “belonging” and “not-belonging” is an ever-changing continuum, and Poppi demonstrates how the different stages of initiation follow a progression that, starting from a succession of sensory experiences of an increasingly complex nature, leads up to a final mental state within the highest grade. His description of the dynamics of the Sigma society concludes by defining them as the “technology of power.”
Frederick John Lamp enumerates the great variety of ways all the senses are stimulated in masked ceremonies and rituals throughout Guinée. Following earlier observations, he addresses in greater detail the mask as a theatrical phenomenon, rather than a material belonging to and analysed accordingly to the criteria in the realm of the visual arts or ethnography.
African art can only be grasped by embodiment, he argues, as it is through embodiment that it takes on its life. The performers as well as the audience for which the performance is destined undergo a process of embodiment, impossible to approach even by approximation in a museum gallery. A wooden head on a wall would not be recognized by the same people that have often seen it in action.
His many examples of how all the senses are addressed in African art prompt his conclusion that African art should be reframed as performance art, as its kinaesthetic qualities are vital to its understanding and appreciation.
As a theater practitioner, I could not agree more with Lamp's recommendation, as masks invariably function within a performative context. In the vast literature on African masks, however, whether popular or (semi)scientific, I find an approach to masked ceremonies from a performance studies point of view too infrequent, and many more West African mask practices in Bouttiaux's collection would deserve a study comparable to how Yoruba spectacles have been described and analysed by Henry John Drewal (1990), Margaret Thompson Drewal (1990, 1992), Babatunde Lawal 1996), and others.
This carefully illustrated volume offers valuable insights and makes a pleasurable read at the same time.
https://youtu.be/07hObHsT-A0 gives a lively impression of mask rituals in the village in Bedik country.