Kalabari Masquerade

kalabari_masquerade_01

Naked Big Fish is a sculpture in steel and wood by contemporary British artist Sokari Douglas Camp. It represents the spectacular masking tradition of the Kalabari people of the Niger Delta region in West Africa. This is a contemporary masking tradition with old roots, which plays itself out on the streets of Kalabari towns and villages. The hidden performers represent water spirits, historical and mythological beings. The cycle of performances lasts twenty years.

Naked Big Fish explores the power of transformation through the Kalabari masquerade, in which young men turn themselves into gods through their costumes, headdresses and performances. The sculpture reveals a young man in the process of dressing. Instead of emphasising the god, the sculptor concentrates on the physical changes brought about by the mask, the padding and the false pregnant belly.

Naked Big Fish is about masquerade performance, about the process of dressing and transforming into a deity. It is also about the process of undressing, unmasking.

 

About Kalabari Masquerade

Masquerade is a powerful thing of the present in the Niger Delta; it is performed to depict and invoke water spirits. According to myth, Kalabari women were the first to witness the water sprits playing on the fringes of the mangroves. The women told the men, who later enacted the performances. Today, the performance of these masquerades is in homage to the original water spirits. Performances take place over a cycle that lasts twenty years.

‘Kalabari festivals celebrate mythological characters and water spirits and historical characters. What attracts me is that they are meant to be fairy stories. They’re fascinating! From a young age you’re introduced to these mythological characters. It’s like coming in touch with Father Christmas, except in a far more electric way. Peter Pan, a real fairy, playing in front of you! They come to perform for you and they tell you stories about their world.’ (Sokari Douglas Camp, interview 1988, Smithsonian exh. cat.)

‘As an artist my work has been about festivals in the Niger Delta. … Male and female audiences view the productions of a secret society. The society is for the development of men into warriors: they dress up in sheets which are sewn tightly around their bodies leaving only their feet exposed. There are various fabrics used as skirts of varying lengths, depending on the masquerader. Aprons are also worn by some of these masqueraders, showing that a sacrifice has been made to the gods who are depicted by the performers.

kalabari_masquerade_03The performers change their figures by putting pillows on their stomachs, making themselves look pregnant. Their bottoms have phalluses that vary in shape and size depending on the masquerade being depicted. So you have a two-sexed figure: a pregnant figure with an erection. The heads of the performers are generally decorated with feathers and mirrors. Some costumes have carved wooden sculptures of fish and forest animals and masks. These sculptures are worn on top of the head by the people in the Niger Delta. The idea being that the carving has a conversation with God (or the sky) as it performs.’  (Sokari Douglas Camp, 1999)

 

Masquerade is traditionally a male domain, constructed and performed by men, even if the spirits represented are women. Many of the Kalabari dancers display hermaphrodite qualities. Naked Big Fish has a pregnant rounded belly constructed by a basket, and a phallic structure strapped on the back of the performer. In Naked Big Fish these are on display, as we see the masker in the process of dressing.

 

Sokari Douglas Camp talks about Naked Big Fish

‘Naked Big Fish was made with a series of other sculptures for a show at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. (Spirits in Steel: the art of the Kalabari masquerade, 1999). He came about because I had done a study of some masquerade dancers called Okolokurukuru and I had made forms of their masquerades in full costume and I wanted people to know what a mask looked like when it was fully dressed and alive as it is meant to be seen. Not as it is introduced to so many people, without a body.

kalabari_masquerade_04‘There is a particular masquerade that has a lot on its head, it is shaped like a plane and a bird and a fish. It had additional things like figurines and little fencing as if it was the deck of a ship. I dealt with some of these elements to describe this masquerade on several occasions, but I have not got a version that competes with the actual original yet.

‘Anyway Naked Big Fish came about because I wanted to undress the masqueraded and show him for what he was, a man in a costume. Since I started studying Okolokurkuru, Nigeria had been through some very bad times and I wanted to get rid of some of the things I loved tearing off some illusions and this is one of the reasons Big Fish is naked. The other reasons are that I like black men in string vests. I love that their nipples can be caught in the string. You can see that Naked Fish has a pillow to extend his belly and a tail made of a structure that looks like a wooden trap. His face is slightly exposed; all things that are discouraged in masquerade reality but something that happens during performances.

‘Naked Big Fish – despite all my anger at my country’s incompetence – still has an element of power aggression and majesty about him.’

(Sokari Douglas Camp, letter to Brighton Museum, 5 May 2000)

More about Naked Big Fish

kalabari_masquerade_02Naked Big Fish explores the power of transformation through the Kalabari masquerade, in which young men turn themselves into gods through their costumes, headdresses and performances. The sculpture reveals a young man in the process of dressing. Instead of emphasising the god, the sculptor concentrates on the physical changes brought about by the mask, the padding and the false pregnant belly.

 

Naked Big Fish is about masquerade performance, about the process of dressing and transforming into a deity. It is also about the process of undressing, unmasking. As part of Spirits in Steel, Douglas Camp explored the idea of the undressing of a masker by irate spectators, the worst form of humiliation that a masquerader can endure. When works for this exhibition were being made, ‘Nigerians in the Delta were killed without trial, and everyone felt lost with this sort of injustice – I wanted to show the gods had left us and we were just left with men pretending to be gods.’  (in Barnwell, 1999).

Leave a Reply