Close-ups of a grass skirt, the fibers of which dance on-screen, introduce a sequence about masks in Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s 1953 film-essay, Les Statues Meurent Aussi, known in English as Statues Also Die.1 At the end of the sequence, the camera quiets and what could be the dancing mask’s dead equivalent is shown for fractions of seconds, unmoving and still, in a museum vitrine. In Resnais and Marker’s elegiac prose-poem, l’Art Nègre is equated with the medium of sculpture, from the court art of the Benin bronzes to the domestic art of an anthropomorphic spoon, and with what I would call the performance art of masquerade.2
Later in this sequence, in a visual repertory of still images of masks, Greek, Japanese, Sumerian, Roman, and Modern reminiscences are ascribed to some, while others are described as “ beast’s masks, man’s mask, house-mask, face-mask, Pierrot of the rivers, Harlequin of the forest” in a cultural comparativist hodge-podge with a universalist bent that never fails to return to a Eurocentric perspective. In another sequence devoted to masks – the film’s last – masks are shown tightly hung in museum storage, possibly that of the British Museum, Musée du Congo Belge (present-day Musée de Tervuren), or Musée de l’ Homme (present-day Musée du Quai Branly after the fusion of the collections from the now defunct Musée des Arts d’ Afrique et d’ Océanie), offering one last indictment of the nefarious role played by Western museums in the death of African art.
Problem and Paradox with Masquerade and Performance
Taking its cues from Statues Also Die, Masks Also Move shows how the paradoxical image of African art assembled in the sixty-year-old, thirty-minute long cinematographic collage is as dated as it is current, and how the stereotypes that Statues Also Die exposes and reinforces continue to find currency among Western and African conceptions of art. In a twenty-first century, tongue-in-cheek reversal of the movie’s title and radical rebuttal of notions of traditional African art as essentially sculptural, Masks Also Move looks at contemporary African art practices that put masks back into motion. In doing so, Masks Also Move seeks to delineate genealogies of African performance as alternatives to performance art’s mainstream narrative and to expose performance art’s own Eurocentric primitivist myth of origin in the process.
Masks Also Move investigates culturally specific public performance practices as they have emerged in Benin and/or from Beninese artists in the last couple of years. Specifically, Masks Also Move takes recent performance practices by Beninese artists Edwige Aplogan, Meshac Gaba, Tchif, and Zinkpè as case studies for the elaboration of a genealogy of late twentieth century and early twenty-first century Beninese performance art practices, striving to contextualize their emergence in post-Independence Benin. These artists draw on elements that range from Fon and Yoruba masquerade traditions such as Gélédé (Tchif) and Egungun (Aplogan) and vodun sculpture (Aplogan) to the processional culture of the former Dahomey Kingdom (Zinkpè) and the fluxes of daily life in contemporary Benin (Gaba and all of the aforementioned artists.)
“ Not all African peoples are sculptors,” says Beninese art historian and Dahomey appliqué cloth specialist Joseph Adandé, refuting a belief he said was inherited from Cubism.4 In the same vein – that of the refutation of the idea of the invention of African art by Western modernism – I would argue that not all performance art was born of the European avant-gardes of the early twentieth century. Further, I highlight here the paradox of a Eurocentric conception of performance art premised upon artistic movements indebted to the so-called “ primitive” arts, chief among which was African art, while simultaneously doing away with the notion of contemporary African performance art in ways that, possibly, preclude its very emergence.
Did the double process by which African art was recuperated as primitivism by the historic European avant-garde and evacuated as fetishism by the colonial missionary enterprise fill a gap in European art practices while also creating a void in the development of modern and contemporary African art practices? Did emancipation from stereotypes linked to the performance of the black body –long conceived of as primitive by colonial ideology, often caricatured, and at times entirely banned – allow for a re-appropriation of performance by African artists leading to the current emergence of performance in contemporary African art? If twentieth-century primitivism participated in a colonial vision of Africa and its cultural productions, then known as modern, multiculturalism renewed a well-meaning interest in diversity while globalization normalized the idea of the Other and postcolonialism theorized strategies of resistance. Where, then, does performance stand in contemporary African art practice in our current moment when performance art dominates the discourse of contemporary art?
Only recently have debates about contemporary African performance art per seemerged. This notably includes Performa, the visual arts performance biennial whose founder RoseLee Goldberg is the very art historian who pioneered a history of performance art rooted in Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism.4 That the book is largely concerned with the history of European and North American performance art – hence its roots in the aforementioned European avant-gardes – is never stated as such in the title of the original book, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, which implies universalism where there is in fact Eurocentrism. With few examples outside the Euro-American context (although performances by African-American, Latin-American, and Asian-American artists are mentioned), Goldberg’s update to the book (Performance: Live Art Since the 60s,) fails to show fully how “ the chosen medium for articulating ‘ difference,’ whether dealing with issues of identity, multiculturalism or globalism” 5 is not first and foremost a tool of Western othering rather than an instrument for non-Western self-representation.
In 2010, Performa organized “ Contemporary Performance in Cape Town, Kinshasa and Tunis,” a conversation with Okwui Enwezor and Deborah Willis presented by Goldberg.6 While the event effectively discussed the context surrounding the emergence of performance practices in these cities and emphasized the need for studying their distinct genealogies, Enwezor’s presentation on Samuel Fosso and Willis’s on Mary Sibande and Les Sappeurs only began to open up a field of investigation as vast and diverse as the cities and countries that the event sought to highlight. Moreover, they did so without necessarily recognizing that the largely Western definition of performance art, itself the byproduct of the still largely Eurocentric field of art history, vastly hinders this endeavor.
Meanwhile, in their last book on contemporary African art, Contemporary African Art since 1980, Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu do not address the medium of performance as such, devoting a chapter to “ The Body Politic: Difference, Gender, Sexuality” instead.7 Although Enwezor’s and Okeke-Agulu’s concept-based, non-disciplinary approach to contemporary African art practices is welcome, the specific issues posed by the body in motion and by the image of the body in public space might warrant an analysis within the discourse of performance art, which typically addresses these issues. Or might it be that performance art discourse is ill-suited to do so for the black body, historically shunned from performance?.8
So where does performance stand in contemporary African art today among Euro-American, which is not to say Eurocentric, conceptions of both African art and performance art? What is at stake in the reassessment of contemporary African art from the point of view of performance and in the establishment of a genealogy of contemporary African performance art practices today?
Meschac Gaba – Masks as Anti-Masks
Tresses, Perruques and Défiles de Perruques (2005 – present)…
Meschac Gaba’s braids and wigs, or tressesand perruques, as he calls them in French, were not conceived in Cotonou but in Harlem. The artist (b. 1961 in Cotonou) contends that they have nothing to do with masks nor, he claims, do the défilé de perruques, or “ parade of wigs,” have anything to do with masquerade.9 As sculptural and architectural constructions of braids worn on the head (some of the first wigs represented New York skyscrapers), Gaba’s perruques exemplify the historical, traditional, and contemporary importance of the head and hair in African and African diasporic cultures, whether through hairstyles or other head ornaments. Set into motion by the défilé de perruques, Gaba’s work speaks to the daily flux of contemporary life. The motivation behind exhibiting the work outdoors was spurred by the artist’s desire to make the project accessible to a wider audience, while the inspiration behind using the processional mode stemmed from the ambulation of the market women of Cotonou selling goods transported on their heads. Throughout the city’s streets and the country’s roads, women balance heavy loads of food produces onto a tray stabilized by rolled-up rags on top of the head.
At first, the tresses represented buildings from Cotonou and New York City, where they premiered in 2005 following a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Later, they depicted buildings from London and Paris, where they were first shown in a street procession in 2006 and, subsequently, in Cape Town at Michael Stevenson Gallery. Next came the cars, shown in Cape Town for a second show of Tresses at Michael Stevenson Gallery. As part of the Bibliothèque Résidence of his Musée d’ Art de la Vie Active (MAVA) begun in Cotonou in 2010, Gaba exhibited tresses representing symbols ranging from dollar signs to Coptic and Christian crosses, the Communist Hammer and Sickle, a saxophone, and an open book. For the opening of Biennale Bénin 2012, Gaba outfitted so-called zemidjans mopeds with signs bearing various messages, forming a mobile library squad.
…Not Masks, Not Masquerades
Never mind that the lower part of the tresses or perruques often covers the face of their wearer with braids left dangling, as if a curtain through which to see without being seen, in a manner similar to Egun and other masks. Never mind that the upper part of the tresses or perruques represents functional objects as bearers of a social message in the fashion of Gélédé masks. Never mind that unlike previous outings where the wearers of the tresses wore everyday garb, in their last outing participants dressed in white, costume-like robes that further enhanced the aesthetic qualities of the headpieces as in traditional, fully-fledged, masks. Despite all this, Gaba remains adamant that the tresses are not masks and that their public performances do not amount to masquerades.
Granted, the wearers of the tresses do not seem to channel an extra-humane force or undergo a spiritual transformation as masks do in masquerades. But why such staunch opposition to the very notion of mask and masquerade from a contemporary Beninese artist? Mentioning the recently deceased Tokoudagba, an artist seen as the bearer of the Fon artistic tradition, Gaba explains that he respects tradition but is invested in resolutely contemporary forms and is keen to discuss his work in terms of performance, not masquerade.
While refuting masquerade as part of the genealogical lineage for his performances, Gaba manages to create works that are at once reminiscent of traditional African performances and totally visionary in terms of a contemporary performance practice. After all, the motifs of the aforementioned MAVA tressescan be seen as a contemporary tridimensional incarnation of the bas-relief symbols of the palaces of the old Dahomey Kingdom and, as literacy is the wealth of developing countries, Gaba’s mobile libraries might well be present-day Fête des Richesses, or “ Festival of the Riches” (about which more later.)
Edwige Aplogan – Masks as Monuments
Drapés de Monuments (2010 – present)
Contrary to Gaba, Edwige Aplogan (b. 1955 in Porto-Novo) is eager to re-appropriate or, in her words, to rehabilitate, some of Benin’s most iconic masquerades. However, rather than doing so through performance, Aplogan creates public monuments.10 Starting in 2010 as part of the wider project, Drapés de Monuments (Monument Drapings), which was spurred by the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of seventeen African countries, including Benin (the project was originally called Drapés du Cinquentenaire (des Indépendances) or Drapings of the Fiftieth Anniversary (of the Independences)), Aplogan covered public monuments in some of Cotonou and Porto-Novo’s most popular places and populous crossroads.
Whether a palm tree in Le drapé de la Place de l’Etoile Rouge (Draping of the Place de l’Etoile Rouge) in Cotonou, unveiled on 1 August 2010, the fiftieth anniversary of Benin’s independence, or the ship-like wrapping of the so-called Fort Ouidah apartment building in Le drapé de l’immeuble de l’ancien président Sourou Migan Apithy (Draping of the Building of Former President Sourou Migan Apithy) in late January 2011, in a Brazilian neighborhood of Porto-Novo that is reminiscent of the history of the slave trade, or the Egun d’Adjarradoccodji (Egun of Adjarradoccodji) around the Adjarra market in Porto-Novo in October 2010, Aplogan’s drapés represent a patchwork of African flags sewn in satin, sustained by a rigid metallic armature, and embellished with garlands illuminated at night for maximum 24/7 impact.
The Rehabilitation of Masks as Ordinary Icons
Building on these previous works, Aplogan hopes to realize a project that brings together three iconic masks shared by the Beninese and the Nigerians – Egun, Zangbeto, and Gélédé – at the Carrefour Sémé, the last crossroads in Benin on the road to Nigeria. The Egun and the Zangbeto masks are Beninese and Nigerian versions of a Yoruba watchman mask who has a police function and reveres the spirit of the dead, while Gélédé honors mothers. In the meantime, Aplogan created various Legba statues in Plexiglas and string lights for Biennale Bénin 2012, a series of which was installed at Centre Kora, the main exhibition hall, and another one in a public space in Ouidah. Referring to the mask-monuments as pièces témoins(“ witness works” ), Aplogan explains that her primary intention is to render them visible (“ visualiser” ) and ordinary (“ rendre ordinaire” ) without assigning them a particular function. With regard to the Legba statues in particular, she says that she wants to replace the negative connotations of darkness and backwardness that colonial ideology assigned to these sculptures of mud hidden in Vodun temples with positive values of light and beauty, celebration and protection, with the use of Plexiglas and lights. In other words, Aplogan wants to bring people “ out of themselves” and “ out of the taboo” in which she thinks they are confined.
But Aplogan’s rehabilitative intentions have been met with Vodun cult members’ protective stances and, at times, outward resistance. Prior to making her Egun mask-monument and her Legba sculpture, Aplogan went to the Vodun temples. There, she expressed her interest in representing a cult figure, secured authorization from cult members to do so and, in the case of the Egun mask-monument, worked with an artisan specialized in Egun mask-making to realize her oversized version of the mask. But after weeks of its successful exhibition, the Egun d’Adjarradoccodji disappeared. One of the Plexiglas Legba sculptures, first shown at the Fondation Zinsou and therefore “ protected,” that is, safely guarded by security personnel, did not. Other Plexiglas Legbas are safely preserved in the collection of the Museo Afro-Brasil in São Paolo. Aplogan fears that the Legba in Ouidah might also disappear during the biennial. But what to do? As Aplogan reminds us, the Legba is already a guardian figure. Wouldn’ t guarding a guardian be redundant?
The Recuperation of the Mask-Monument
Aplogan, who is not a Vodun practitioner but respects the religion as an integral part of her Beninese identity, surmises that once faced with the power of representation of the Egun, the priests felt the need to, in her words, “ recuperate” it. She stops short of saying that they stole it. They didn’ t. They recovered what was theirs. This interpretation seems all the more valid that the Egun disappeared a week before the annual Vodun festival, which is usually held on January 10. For Aplogan, it is clear: “ Il ne pouvait pas y avoir le live et la statue” ; there couldn’ t be live Egunguns masqueraders and an Egungun statue occupying the same space at the same time, less they cancel out – or double up? – each other’s power in ways that could be detrimental, and even possibly fatal, to the cult and its practitioners.
What then of Aplogan’s planned project for the Carrefour Sémé? Although belonging to an overarching Fon and Yoruba, Beninese and Nigerian pantheon, the spirits incarnated by Gélédé, Egun, and Zangbeto masks do not usually appear in the same space and at the same time. Instead, Gélédé may appear night and day, while Egun only appears at night and Zangbeto only during the day. Aplogan’s staged still masquerade seriously disrupts what we could call, borrowing from Western classical theatrical rule, the unity of action, place, and time, thereby creating the “ hiatus” she says she seeks. Will Aplogan’s Gélédé, Egun, and Zangbeto monuments disappear and be recovered by the Vodun temples where their mask equivalents belong? Or will they stay on instead at Carrefour Sémé as ordinary icons of Beninese contemporary life, straddling the secular and the sacred?.11
Tchif – Masquerade as Performance
In-Dependence Day (2010)
Inspired by the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Independences as well, Tchif (b. Francis Tchiakpe in 1973 in Cotonou) organized In-Dependence Day, a protest-performance with fifty Gélédé masks, fifty zemidjans, and fifty young women (“ parce que les femmes en Afrique représentent un signe de richesse” ; “ because women represent a sign of wealth in Africa” the artist explained), held on Boulevard Steinmetz and at Espace Tchif in downtown Cotonou on 1 August 2010.12 For In-Dependance Day, the “ Day of the Dependence,” a critique of the very idea of African independence, Tchif commissioned famed Covè mask-maker Eloi Lokossou to make Gélédé masks with twin gun-toting figures not unlike colonial-era representations of French military and police forces.
Bringing the Gélédé’s celebratory brand of social critique into Cotonou, however, did not grant the artist immediate legibility. The hybridization that Tchif produced by combining the Gélédé with the zemidjans, the former a rural masquerade, the latter an urban phenomenon, did not override the fundamental displacement of bringing a village tradition into a city center. The additional element of protesting women waving signs only further added to the public’s confusion. According to Tchif, “ Ils n’ont pas compris” ; “ They didn’ t understand.”
Contemporary Gélédé Masquerade as Protest-Performance
As a masquerade worn by men to honor the spirit of women and ensure maternal fertility and children’s health as part of wider philosophical principles of social harmony in formerly matriarchal societies, how could the masquerade, which usually occurs in the marketplace for up to a week, fare amidst zemidjans and female demonstrators on one of Cotonou’s main avenues over the course of a few hours? Did the motorization of the Gélédé masks on zemidjans, in the chaos of a city avenue, somehow disrupt their status as vehicles of social harmony? Did their mirroring in the urban-dwelling female protesters disarm their power of representation of traditional female values? Did the doubling of the male social commenter as female Gélédé character with the female protester figure disarm rather than reinforce the message of In-dependance Day? What is a contemporary Gélédé masquerade and was In-dependance Day one? Was In-dependance Day a contemporary art performance instead? Or was it both?
While revolutions have long been televised, protests, performances and masquerades have made it onto Youtube. Tchif’s contemporary Gélédé masquerade and protest performance in general can best be appreciated in Senegalese rap star Didier Awadi’s video clip for Woye, a song from his 2010 album, Présidents d’Afrique (Presidents of Africa), also issued for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the African Independences.13 In Awadi’s Woye, Tchif’sIn-Dependance Day masqueraders and characters are not mere background actors. Rather, they are center-stage participants who contribute their voices to the chorus of recriminations sung by Awadi in the mixed French and English refrain: “ We don’ t wanna suffer anymore / We just wanna eat some more / Partout dans la rue on tend la main/ On veut du pain/ On crie Woye ya yo-o-o-o-o-o (“ Everywhere in the street we hold out our hands / We want bread / We shout Woye ya yo-o-o-o-o-o” ). Other lyrics, such as “ On a bien fait la grève mais le gouvernement ne comprend pas le peuple non plus (“ We did go on strike but the government doesn’ t understand, neither do the people” ), like Tchif’s protest performance, do not so much speak directly to the Cotonou context as they speak more generally to an African context of discontent with government (such as the 2012 Senegalese electoral revolt against then incumbent president, Abdoulaye Wade.)
Re-Inventing the Language of Masquerade
Back in 2009, Tchif was already speaking about producing a contemporary Gélédé masquerade, which was to be commissioned by the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. At the time, Tchif also spoke of what he referred to as “ la mascarade des revenants Klinto,” or “ the masquerade of the Klinto ghosts,” who would be dressed in cosmonaut suits as “ sculpture vivante,” or “ living sculpture,” and take his notion of contemporary masquerade up a notch. If this performance piece is to happen it might well reinvent the language of masquerade altogether, creating new masks in a resolutely contemporary vocabulary.
Zinkpè – Procession as Performance
Zinkpè (Dominique Zinkpè, b. in Cotonou in 1969) is no novice to working in the streets.14 A veteran of Boulev’ art (1999-2005), a recurring international open studio and outdoor exhibition project conceived to bring contemporary art closer to the public of Cotonou, Zinkpè is also the creator of Taxis-Zinkpè (2000-2011), a fleet of so-called taxi-brousses outfitted with additional cargo to emphasize the daily feats of fitness of mass public transportation in Africa. Zinkpè’s first dé ambulatoire as he calls it, Awobobo, its name derived from a Fon word expressing a feeling of surprise (the best English equivalent might be “ wow” ) was nothing short of wowing indeed. Produced for the 2008 FITHEB theater festival (Festival International de Théâtre du Bénin), the public processional performance spanned seven kilometers—from the FITHEB’s headquarters as the location of the former Ciné Vog movie theatre, to Station Lègba, Etoile Rouge, Cadjéhoun and Place du Souvenir— lasted over three hours, and featured hundred of participants who navigated pirogues, rode taxi-brousses and moto-taxis, marched and danced.15 Zinkpè himself led the procession along with dancers he had hired from the royal court of Porto-Novo (one of the three former Fon kingdom) while onlookers and passers-by followed behind. A part-time Abomey resident who traces his ancestry to the former Dahomey Kingdom, Zinkpè acknowledges living Fon traditions as Awobobo’ssource of inspiration.
Legacy of Dahomean Public Ceremonial Culture
CultureFrom November 2012 to March 2013, a contemporary incarnation of what was once known to European travelers to Dahomey as Coutumes, or “ Customs,” will take place in Abomey, albeit reduced to what was once its culminating celebration, La Fête des Richesses du Roi (The Procession of the King’s Wealth).16 The Customs were religious celebrations of a military monarchywhose chief economic activity was the slave trade. Regular Customstook place annually while special Customs were held following a king’s funeral. The Customs developed in the eighteenth century and reached their apex in the mid-nineteenth century under father and son kings Ghezo and Glélé. The last Fête des Richesses took place over thirty years ago.
A parade of the royal possessions taken out of the King’s warehouses by armies of male and female government officials, religious leaders, soldiers, and slaves to be partly redistributed to his subjects, the Fête des Richesses was preceded by mass human sacrifices of slaves and war prisoners. Its content ranged from European gifts, local artifacts, Vodun ritual instruments, slaves and the kingdom’s subjects. Together, as the King’s most prized possessions, they served as the motor of Benin’s economic development. Most importantly, as concerns Beninese art and museum history, I would suggest that the Fête des Richesseswas nothing short of a living curiosity cabinet, a sort of processional proto-museum, a mode of display specific to the cultural circumstances of the times.
New Modes of Contemporary Artistic Creation
The founder of Unik-Lieu de création contemporaine, a space for contemporary artistic creation in Abomey that includes artist studios, an outdoor concert venue, a library, a restaurant and a roof terrace, Zinkpè is at ease with tradition and modernity. He is also the new sponsor of the arts in Abomey, serving as the head of this artistic village on an enclosed compound that is not unlike the Dahomey palaces where craftsmen and their families are still seen perpetuating the trades of their ancestors who were the official court artists and artisans. Will Zinkpè, with his interest in the processional traditions of both the former Fon kingdoms andBenin’s contemporary activities of commerce, contribute further to the creation of new artistic traditions? Will he, along with Aplogan, Gaba, and Tchif, help write a new Beninese art history that encompasses its performance traditions while remaining mindful of its distinct display models?
Towards a Genealogy of Performance Practices in Benin and Beyond
Masks Also Move strives to show the different paths through which Aplogan, Gaba, Tchif, and Zinkpè arrived at performance and/or the roads they traveled through new uses of masquerade. Needless to say, Mask Also Move does not seek to suggest that all Beninese – let alone all African contemporary performance art – stems from masquerade or processional traditions or any one particular tradition, phenomenon or source. Instead, it seeks to highlight the new public or performative usages the four aforementioned Beninese artists have made of these traditions. Masks Also Move also attempts to shed light on the problem and paradox inherent in the primitivist appropriation of masquerade and Eurocentric definitions of performance. By concentrating upon works that put masks back into light (Aplogan) or into motion (Gaba, Tchif, Zinkpè), Masks Also Move also indirectly challenges other works by contemporary African artists, including in Benin, who made and still make masks as museum objects as per the European convention rather than as performance material, as per the African one. The artists in Masks Also Move challenge these museum-centric conceptions of art and fully re-appropriate part of a heritage which, though still rejected by some, is increasingly understood as an asset in one of the most compelling contemporary artistic practices: performance. These artists do so often out of a stated desire to appeal to a wider audience, especially a local African one, at home in the cities where they reside and where museums, when they exist, are perceived as inaccessible to the majority of the population. These re-appropriations of performance practices also mean entering into the discourse of performance art in a way that shapes it according to genealogical lineages that counter the very misconceptions that might have impeded the development of contemporary performance practices in Africa in the first place.
The penultimate sentences in Statues Also Die sound like an epitaph: masks which “ fight against death” and “ unveil that which it [death] seeks to hide” are said to “ die in turn, classified, labeled conserved in the ice of showcases and collections” and “ enter into the history of art, paradise of forms, where the most mysterious relationships are established.” African art has gone a long way since 1953 when it was seen as an appendage of European culture, even amongst its most vanguard supporters. How much further can contemporary African art go if its statues live again and its masks move once more? In short, if performance takes its rightful place back within African art?