Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities
2013—2014 Forum on Violence
Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
Valuable Violence: "Chasing" Masks in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso
My project approaches masquerade in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso through the lens of embodied engagement. It is scholarly wisdom that African masks are not mere aesthetic objects, but visually potent entities that dance. However, audiences apprehend masks, not by merely looking, but by interacting with them. During the annual funeral celebration in Bobo-Dioulasso, when not dancing, masks "tour" their home district and interact with audiences. Because masks are unpredictable and potentially dangerous, these interactions range from light-hearted surprises to terrifying threats that the masks might just act on. To be clear: masks often threaten violence, and sometimes commit violent acts.
Despite studies addressing viewers' physical engagement with masks, scholars have not fully investigated situations in which masquerade violence is not necessarily abhorrent. My project rectifies this gap in the literature, demonstrating that violence can be essential, even appropriate, to masquerade. Perhaps surprisingly, people make themselves available for potentially violent interactions with masks, even invading the masks' territory to provoke them into physical retaliation. Such interactions participate in an ongoing dialogue about the fraught history of the city's urbanization. Moreover, the anticipation and genuine threat of violence are essential to the mask tour and are, in fact, what make it enjoyable. This study of the spectacular public displays of the threatened and actual violence inherent to masquerade in Bobo-Dioulasso opens the door to investigating the prospect that other masquerade practices involve productive or entertaining forms of danger and violence and to rethinking the value of risk and bodily danger.