Monday 3 January 2022

West African Masking Traditions and Diaspora Masquerade Carnivals

Chapter I - On Origins of Masking

History, Memory, and Ritual Observances

The masquerade edifies my existence

I, arriving from the nether world

The drummers and flutists announce my arrival

I, the earth goddess who rides the heavenly galaxies

The music in the air honors my ancestry

I, whose offspring have crossed mighty seas to distant places

The dancers and onlookers acknowledge my motherhood

I, whose being twirls to the rhythms of memory.

— Ezeowu, Okoroshá masquerade dancer (2008)

Ozzy Ezeowu's poetics (ube) associated with the Christmas and New Year Okoroshá masks and masquerade festivities in the Achi-Mbieri in Owerri-Igbo area of southeastern Nigeria mirrors the power of this African culture as a site of history, memory, ritual observances, self-reinvention, intellectual episteme, and cultural identity. The mask, for the purpose of clarity, is literally a camouflage, covering or disguise used to hide one’s physical appearance either wholly or partially during a public performance. 

Richard Woodward elucidates that the “full drama of a mask includes an entire custom and even more important, a human setting with music, dance, and song.” Thus, the masquerade is the theatrical or performing art form of the mask — that is, wearing the mask and its accessories and costumes — which electrifies the participants into a festive spirit. The art of costuming — which usually makes use of fabrics and other items of clothing, ornaments, accessories, and colors adorned by actors and actresses for the purpose of defining and establishing the circumstances of the character’s existence in time and space — is the critical tool with which the Igbo and their neighbors literally turned lifeless objects created by humans into mobile spirits and divinities.

In African precolonial society without a well-developed and widely shared writing culture, masquerade celebrations were constituted and observed in due times and seasons as living histories. For example, among the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria (who are also found in the present-day Francophone Republic of Niger), the Gélédé masquerade purportedly honors the earth spirits and the ancestors, and celebrates “Mothers” (áwon iyá wá) — chief among them, the earth goddess, female spirits, and elderly women. The annual Gélédé (or Èfé) fiesta highlights the status of women and pacifies their  hypothetically dangerous mystical powers. As performers ascribe honor to women in a male-controlled society, the Gélédé, “the festival of supplication,” effectively serves a purifying role in society.

Of course, the purpose, utilities, or needs of masks and masquerades change as new ideas and other forces change society. In the context of transatlantic slavery (c. 1440-1880s) for instance, the Gélédé was invoked by the Yoruba elders to soothe the colossal pains afflicted on mothers whose offspring were kidnapped by slavers and sold off to overseas destinations. During the course of the Gélédé fêtes, gender conflicts and other sociopolitical issues are considered in public. 

The preparation of Gélédé masks and masquerade runs for months, and celebrations usually commence at midnight when the big mask heralds start of the festivities. On the next day, the lesser masks take turns to entertain the audience, satirizing even the most vexing and daunting sociopolitical issues. Corroborating this idea, Sachin Dete adds that like the other Yoruba masquerades including the Egungun (a manifestation of Yoruba ancestors), the Gélédé uses “satirical devices as a means of enforcing conformity in society.”

By Raphael Chijioke Njoku (2020)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...