I like to delve into the less visited areas of the British Museum – the out of the way spaces away from most of the tourist traffic. One day in the fall, I impulsively thought to go to the Sainsbury Galleries, rooms I hadn’t been to in ages. The majority of the British Museum’s Oceania, North and South American, and African collections used to be a part of a separate museum with an ethnographic focus – the Museum of Man. Since the 1990s, however, these collections were absorbed (in some cases returned) to the British Museum. The Sainsbury Galleries are a series of rooms below the Living and Dying Room, which display objects collected from across Africa, from ethnographic objects to contemporary art.
Turning right after admiring the El Anatsui bottle cap tapestry, I was at once surrounded by large and striking masks. In that moment, I viscerally returned to a book I had read ages ago – Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor. This is why I go to museums – for understanding rather than knowledge. When I first read about the masks and masquerades in Okorafor’s story, I intellectually understood that she was drawing from a historical and cultural tradition. Her writing described them as powerful and terrifying. But it wasn’t until I stood before these masks that I emotionally understood the impact these creations have. They are scary and eerie and larger than life.
I have affectionately called Akata Witch the “Nigerian Harry Potter,” but please don’t think this means it’s in any way derivative. It is very much a book rooted in place, set in Nigeria with the country’s cultures, language, and history infusing every page. This book also follows the basic format of so many kids’ fantasy stories – a strange kid with an almost normal life who just doesn’t fit in finds out they’re part of a magical world.
The main character, Sunny Nwaze, was born in the US but her family lives and is from Nigeria. She stands out for her childhood in America and for being albino. One fateful day, Sunny finds out she is also a magical Leopard Person, which means she belongs in a secret world that values learning and celebrating that which makes us unique. Along with her three friends Chichi, Sasha, and Orlu, Sunny is destined to defeat an evil ritual murderer who is trying to summon the dark masquerade Ekwensu to destroy the world.
My disbelief was already suspended – this was a book about magic! I just went along with the brilliant writing and allowed myself to accept that a wooden mask in a raffia body was an all-powerful, horrifying spirit, especially with all the bugs living inside it. But in that gallery, I got it – Okorafor didn’t make masquerades scary to come up with interesting monsters. They were the villains because masquerades were already terrifying.
This seems like a simple enough realization, but I think sometimes we read something without considering the physicality of it. It’s like reading a play without acting it out or seeing it on stage. No matter how good your imagination, some things need to be experienced. When you read a story that takes place in a culture you don’t belong to or aren’t familiar with, one way to start creating an understanding can be to visit a museum. (Eating the food helps, too. Akata Witch had me craving fried plantains for days.)
Masquerades are spirits who come into the spirit world during weddings, births, funerals and festivals, when people dressed up and celebrated as them. But as Sunny’s new book about being a Leopard person describes:
Up to now you’ve known masquerades to be mere symbolic manifestations of the ancestors or spirits. Men and boys dress up in elaborate cloth and raffia costumes and dance, jeer, or joke, depending on whom they are manifesting. Up to now, you’ve believed masquerades to be nothing more than myth, folklore, theater, and tradition. Now that you are a Leopard Person, know that your world has just become more real. […] Masquerades are always dangerous. They can kill, steal your soul, take your mind, take your past, rewrite your future, bring the end of the world, even.
Sugar Cream, Sunny’s mentor, has masquerade masks on her office walls, and it is a sign of her power. Each has a personality: “Some looked angry, with mouths full of teeth; others were fat-cheeked and comical, sticking their tongues out.” Standing in the British Museum, I got a better sense of just how eerie her office was for Sunny. The carved and crafted masks do seem to stare and judge.
The mound was caving in at the center. They all stepped back as a wooden knob rose from it. It was attached to the top of a large tuft of thick raffia. Then the termite mound expanded. They backed away some more. The creature’s body was large and bulbous, covered with beautiful blue shiny cloth. Cowry shells and blue and white beads hung from pieces of blue yarn. They clicked and clacked as the masquerade grew.
The masks are made from many different materials – cloth, metal, basketry, leaves, plastic, resin, calabashes, clay, or wood. As well as the masks, the masquerades wear colorful robes and costumes. They are beautiful, but the feeling of them is eerie. The elaborate structures distort the human form until it is all too easy to believe you’re facing a spirit rather than a figure in costume.
While the exhibit in the British Museum is of masks collected from many different places and time periods, the text acknowledges that a true masquerade is so much more than the easily displayed masks and costumes – it is a complex performance of body, costume, dance, dialogue, and music. It would have been nice if the display included video and sound.
Each masquerade has a unique attribute (like a particular age in life), specialization (different skills or abilities), and personality. The powerful ones are wild beasts, spirits, foreigners, witches or even the dead. Masquerades express secret knowledge, and: “bring the powers of the wild bush and swamps into the civilised area of town and village so that humans can interact with them and use their dangerous forces for social ends.”
The more I read about masquerades the more the symbols of Ekwensu made sense. This masquerade fed on and caused pollution, and fighting it was a part of the Leopard person’s belief that one must care for the environment.
Masquerades have been seen as a way of maintaining peace and social order, and even acting as law enforcement. The masquerades would walk up to individuals and loudly expose all their bad habits, crimes, and misbehavior for everyone to hear. Ekwensu’s power came from what humans did to the environment, but then she turned it around and made it worse, made it exaggerated and terrible
I encourage readers to stop skimming past sections you don’t understand. Go to a museum (in person or their websites!), look up YouTube videos, try new foods, and you’ll find your reading experiences will have more depth and create more lasting impressions.
Photos of masquerades: