Spurlock opens new exhibit to raise awareness

By Erica Magda

Reaching toward the treetops, a 15-foot-tall teepee-like structure covered in green palm leaves whirls through the community under the starlight.

A thousand community members and thousands more visitors gather around this spectacle, the centerpiece of their masquerade festival.

Young women begin to sing and the leaf creature dances in synch.

This ceremony is one type of contemporary masquerade that takes place in various societies throughout West Africa.

The disguises appear in festivals to honor the agriculture, the initiation of a child into adulthood and death.

The Spurlock Museum, 600 S. Gregory St., Urbana, has around 30 of the mask portions of the costumes that are balanced on the top of the person’s head.

The opening reception for the exhibit, “Where Animals Dance,” is on Friday, Sept. 22 at 7 p.m., and the exhibit is open through March 4.

“It’s very beautiful; like a dream,” recalled Mahir Saul, associate professor in anthropology, who has seen these ceremonies of the Bobo society in West Africa during his fieldwork.

“You see this thing coming and you’re like, ‘Wow!'” Saul said.

For him, this experience was so mesmerizing that people fail to recognize, and are not allowed to acknowledge, that a young man is balancing this leaf creature that encompasses him, on his head.

“They pretend. it’s magic,” Saul said. “It can be fun, scary and intriguing if you forget it’s a person under it, (and think it’s) a wondrous creature with a lot of power.”

Video clips are also available at the exhibit with the various masks.

A series of lectures will take place there throughout the school year, beginning Nov. 3.

A film series and panel discussion may also be underway.

The primary focus of the exhibit and lectures is the carved mask portions of the costumes.

The rest of the structure is typically composed of fibers resembling long pieces of grass that extend to the ground, covering the person inside.

“It’s like a giant tripod that a person enters and lifts it with their head,” Saul said.

When he was 35, he tried to lift one himself.

“I could only make a few steps,” he laughed, amazed at the young mens’ abilities.

“A lot of energy, thinking, resources, time and effort go into the big celebration of the community,” said Saul, who will take his class, Cultures of Africa, on an exhibit tour.

Many young people travel, exhausted, for days at a time to locate the specific resources needed to build the costume.

Often they had to travel at night, Saul said, because the areas they entered were protected zones.

He recalled one group of boys being caught and jailed.

These elaborate projects and demonstrations are critical aspects of many West African societies.

They celebrate the monumental and spiritual components and times in their lives, such as fertility of agriculture.

One structure worn on heads in the ceremonies that is displayed at Spurlock is called D’mba. She is a symbol of motherhood and vision that dances from dawn until dusk on the day of harvest.

The men and women throw rice at her for homage, and reach to touch her swirling fiber skirt and slap her breasts to express their desire for a healthy child.

There is symbolism behind each feature of the mask.

In D’mba’s case, Project Coordinator Tandy Lacy explained that the nose shape resembles the blade used for rice cultivation.

Similar to the festivals for life in these communities is the celebration of death.

From the end of April into May, large funeral masquerade ceremonies are held for those who died in the past year.

“Large audience comes to pay respect and to enjoy the show,” Saul said. “The family of the dead is mourning, but there’s music and dancing and drinking. People dress in white and put ashes on their heads and faces.”

This behavior would seem strange to people here, Saul admitted. But the understanding of these different cultures is a main reason for bringing the exhibit to Spurlock.

“It’s an opportunity for people to learn more about different ethnic groups and how their beliefs and communication with the spiritual world is negotiated through physical objects,” Lacy said.

One aspect of West African culture, Lacy said, is a theme that runs throughout the pieces on display. The importance of feminine roles is shown through the exclusively female funerary society of Tyekpa.

In the corner of the exhibit is a sculpture of a Tyekpa woman carrying a black carved mask that is topped with a drum.

This is to symbolize their intensive involvement in this celebration of death at funerals. There, they were well-known drummers who played in the masquerades.

This is a vital component of West African life, as death is the “final invitation of a person into the world of spirits to be reborn as an ancestor,” Lacy said.

These sculptures are not to be taken lightly.

“It’s not a piece of art to look at,” said the Spurlock security officer Kathy Johnston. “It’s an integral part of the spiritual ceremonies and worship that’s part of their everyday existence.”

Disguise in itself is crucial to the understanding of these masquerade ceremonies and West African culture.

Saul believes this concept of disguise is shared in cultures across the globe.

“All over the world there is something inherently mesmerizing in masking,” he added.

This homogeneous nature of disguise isn’t merely expressed in rituals and ceremonies, but is expressed in human nature itself.

Every day people wear their own masks.

Saul finds this striking.

“Humans assume some persona that is not theirs (from) day to day,” Saul said. “They hide their face and acquire a new persona.”