Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 13, 2009
Patrick R. McNaughton A Bird Dance near Saturday City: Sidi Ballo and the Art of West African Masquerade Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. 328 pp.; 24 color ills.; 2 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (9780253219848)

Sidi Ballo’s masterful performance on a June night in Mali in 1978 was for Patrick McNaughton “a galvanizing event” whose memory stayed with him for three decades and inspired his writing of this book. As he so aptly notes, not all Malian masquerade performers are created equal. I share with him that sentiment. I know from my own work in Mali that it is only a rare and exceptional artist whose performance reveals the full power of the masquerade and whose virtuosity can so decisively imprint its memory on those who experience it.

McNaughton skillfully sets the scene in his introduction. We learn about the Mande Plateau and the groups living there. We are introduced to the Bamana farming community of Dogoduman and its neighboring hamlet of Sibiridugu (the Saturday City in the book title) where McNaughton and his colleagues were carrying out research with the blacksmith Sedu Traore. We learn that Sidi Ballo, a bird masquerader from Bamako, the capital city, is passing through and is negotiating with the Dogoduman elders to perform that evening. McNaughton and his two Malian colleagues, Kalilou Tera and Mamadu Sangaré, arrange with the elders to attend the event. With Ballo’s consent and for a nominal fee paid to him, they are given permission to photograph his performance. That evening these outsiders are introduced by the village master of ceremonies as the official fototalaw (photographers). Twenty years later, in 1998, McNaughton, with Ballo’s performance still on his mind, returns to Mali to pick up this story. He seeks out Ballo and finds that he is still performing the bird masquerade. Throughout the remaining chapters McNaughton skillfully weaves together these two encounters as we learn more about Ballo’s long artistic career and the nature of art and masquerade in Mali.

McNaughton divides the book into four sections. In the first, he provides a vivid account of the June 1978 performance. In section 2, he focuses on Ballo’s artistic biography. In the third part he delves into the larger Mande aesthetic milieu, and in the final section he explores the ways that the audience actively makes meaning in its engagement with the arts. Throughout the book he places himself squarely in the center of his exposition as both an engaged participant and a scholar. McNaughton’s 1988 book, The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), is one of the most frequently cited works on Mande arts. The experiential, personal, scholarly, and analytical are skillfully woven together in this new work, and are made refreshingly transparent throughout.

In section 1, McNaughton describes how the performance comes together and the roles that the participants—the masqueraders and dancers, singers and drummers, and audience and even the researchers—play in the event. In describing it, he briefly outlines the different sequences before communicating the sensory atmosphere, the immediacy, and the shifts in tempo and rhythm across the performance’s several hours. Not surprisingly his most visceral descriptions are reserved for Ballo’s performance. McNaughton gives the reader a taste of the ways that Ballo organizes and paces his performance, how he manipulates the masquerade itself, and how in his most spectacular feat the masquerade opens from the bottom and there is no performer inside. As he describes it, “we see nothing inside but a long, hollow, conical, empty costume” (27). The crowd and McNaughton are amazed, thoroughly awed, and deeply engaged.

In section 2, McNaughton focuses on Ballo’s artistic biography. He constructs it as a life journey that is illuminated and shaped by those cultural attributes that define men and women who are actively engaged in the expressive arts in Mande societies. Personal talents and predilections, as well as cultural notions of ascribed status, destiny, power, charisma, and heroic behavior, all play a part in shaping Ballo’s artistic personality and his career. This section is also perhaps the most original contribution of the book. Rarely are individual performers the subject of studies of African masquerade. In many African societies there are legitimate reasons for not focusing on, or identifying, individual masqueraders. In fact it is often not only culturally inappropriate but deemed highly dangerous to do so. This seems not to be the case with Ballo, who is proud of his reputation as a master performer. Indeed, when McNaughton first met him he was engaged to perform at a wedding in a nearby village several days after the Dogoduman event. Although people recognize his talents and are eager to have Ballo perform, it is also true that while he was performing there was a certain suspension of disbelief as performance protocol and cultural appropriateness preclude the audience from publicly recognizing Ballo as the man inside the masquerade. During the event those who are moved by the masquerade, whether the lead singer, her chorus, or individuals in the audience, publicly recognize Ballo’s performance by singing or shouting a praise name Kulanjan, the Long Anvil, which is both a reference to the bird masquerade and a praise name associated with Ballo.

In telling this story McNaughton demonstrates how Ballo’s artistic career has changed over the intervening twenty years and how he has adjusted his performance style to accommodate his aging. In fact it is somewhat atypical in Mali for a man of Ballo’s age to be performing masquerades, as this activity is more appropriate to the kamalen wati, the time of youth. As a mature man and itinerant performer engaged in masquerading, Ballo is unusual. I would have liked to know more about the history of itinerant masqueraders in this area over the last century. According to the ethnographic literature, most masqueraders were not itinerant, and they generally performed within a particular association or in the home community. It is true, however, that during the colonial period entertainment masquerades were invited into administrative centers to perform on holidays or during the visits of various dignitaries. This is a practice that continues into the present. Since independence in Mali in 1960, there have also been regular government-sponsored regional and national arts competitions, and these have included youth association masquerades. For several decades now, masquerade troupes have traveled to festivals abroad. Over the past decade or so Malian tour agencies have started to engage local masquerade troupes to perform for their clients. Since the reader meets Ballo as a young man in 1978, nearly two decades after independence, I wonder how his performance career intersected or reflected, if at all, the new performance contexts that were emerging in Mali during the same time period?

In section 3, McNaughton brings together a wealth of research and insights on Mande expressive arts; these are based on his own research and that of his colleagues whom he generously acknowledges. He combines this material in a masterful way to skillfully interrogate local notions of form and to examine its essential relationship with aesthetics. He then shifts his focus to the performance as unit of analysis. He defines it as an aesthetically charged environment, and through a careful exposition he demonstrates the ways that form and performance come together to create artistic affect. In his discussions of artists and artistry McNaughton also makes clear that binary oppositions such as power and play, public and secret, anonymous and named, and ritual and secular more often than not obscure, rather than enlighten, an understanding of Mande expressive culture.

In the final section, McNaughton turns his attention to the question of meaning. He uses insights drawn from Ernst Gombrich’s notion of the “beholder’s share” and Walter Benjamin’s ideas about the virtual personalities of artworks in order to explore the ways that audiences construct meaning and value around artworks. He argues that what he calls the “atmosphere of artworks” are always provisional, partial, built up over time, and unevenly distributed within the audience. In the case of Ballo’s bird masquerade, he shows how people’s knowledge and multiple understandings of birds and the cultural meanings attributed to them from a variety of natural and cultural contexts outside the event serve as an “atmosphere of images” out of which individuals construct the meaning and value of Ballo’s performance.

McNaughton’s personal and scholarly engagement with the artistry of Ballo, the man behind/inside the mask, makes for a compelling book and a most welcome addition to the literature on African art and performance. At first I was puzzled and somewhat bemused by the title and especially the translation of Sibiridugu as “Saturday City.” While it is a correct literal translation, Sibiridugu would more universally be understood in Mande terms as “Sibiri Traore’s village.” The village name encodes a family’s history and identifies the founder and his descendants as the owners of the village with all the attendant rights and responsibilities. But after delving into the book, I came to embrace the title as fully appropriate to the spirit of this study. Just as the title captures our attention, so too does Ballo’s larger-than-life bird masquerade. McNaughton is clearly not afraid of admitting to and appreciating the awe-inspiring power of art, and it is this appreciation that provides new ways of critically thinking about art, artistic behavior, and performance—both in Africa and more universally.

Mary Jo Arnoldi
Curator, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution