By Phillip A. Townsend, Independent Scholar & Curator
As I walked up the stairs to Big Medium’s Canopy Gallery, I was serenaded with melodic West African music being played from a balafon (a kind of wooden xylophone) and a tambin (a diagonal diatonic flute made from a conical vine). I was warmly welcomed by Olaniyi Rasheed Akindiya aka AKIRASH, the artist behind Canopy’s current installation, SASO L’OJU EGUN / BEHIND THE MASK.
AKIRASH gave me a quick introduction to the exhibition which featured ten different costumes, each referencing a masquerade tradition called “Egungun.” The Egungun Masquerade is an annual West African festival (originally celebrated by the Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria) where the Egungun, reincarnated ancestors, arrive and pay their descendants regular visits to bless them. Amongst the Yoruba, the annual ceremonies, which honor the dead, also serve as a means of assuring their ancestors a place among the living.
I was blown away by the scale, color, and quality of the elaborately woven costumes. Akriash made each piece from materials—braids, sequins, tassels, and amulets—sourced from local thrift stores, Goodwill, and Salvation Army and endowed them with patterns and symbols from cultures all over the world—Ghana (Adrinka), Nigeria (Uli, Arewa), South Africa (Ndebele), Cameroon (Bamileke), Australia (Aboriginal), New Zealand (Maori), and New Mexico (Pueblo). The six and seven feet tall costumes, mounted on crates and stools, were shaped and suspended using barely visible wire making them read as sculptures.
AKIRASH left me alone in the gallery so he could continue to prepare for the exhibition’s culminating performance. Many of the costumes in the show were adorned with small bits of mirrors. As I walked through the gallery, I could occasionally see myself reflected in the costumes. As a Black person living in the United States, this was a very emotional experience for me. By design, descendants of enslaved Africans were disconnected from the continent, cultures, and traditions of our ancestors. For me, AKIRASH’s costumes reawakened an intense curiosity and gave me the opportunity to reflect on a part of me I thought was lost, or at least indecipherable.
As I stood outside the gallery contemplating on what I had just seen, the performance was announced by a thunderous boom from a Dundun Talking Drum (made from Tweneboah wood with goatskin heads) and the sudden appearance of AKIRASH’s daughter who, dressed all in white, flung white powder in the air and placed four eggs along the corners of a bench covered in white fabric. Moments later, AKIRASH appeared, also dressed in white, carrying a white staff adorned with white and blue bells, white and blue beads, and small white skulls. Singing in Yoruba, the artist struck the pavement with the staff making his presence and intentions known to those within the space. He walked to the bench, smashed the eggs with his feet and used his hands to smear the contents onto the bench which now would function as an altar for the performance and subsequent masquerade.
As purple, orange, and yellow smoke bombs filled the atmosphere with brilliant color, one by one the masqueraders emerged dressed in the ten Egun costumes that were on display in the gallery. The Egungun robed performers danced as if they were possessed by the spirits of the ancestors. While the performative ritual of Egungun has a long history, it is certainly not a static art form. Rather it is a dynamic and intensely divergent socio-cultural practice always subject to the innovative, transformational forces of its skilled performers and active spectators.
As the performance drew to a close, I began contemplating what I had just witnessed. I was reminded that AKIRASH conceived of this project, not in Africa, but in Bahia, Brazil. A large portion of people in Bahia are able to trace their ancestry back to West Africa. The tradition of the Egungun traveled with them on slave ships across the sea. As a result, they were able to replicate the festival and masquerades in their own tradition. At that moment, I realized that using local materials and local performers AKIRASH was not creating a West African ceremony, but a diasporic experience that transcended place and time.
In the end, the masquerade inspired performance helped me appreciate that my Bamileke ancestors are not confined to Cameroon, they can appear in any time, space, or place—even in Austin!