I AM (NOT) MYSELF: WEST AFRICAN MASQUERADE TRADITION AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE SELF //

Na Chainkua Reindorf, Reveal||Conceal, November 2016. Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

Na Chainkua Reindorf, Reveal||Conceal, November 2016. Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

When I proposed the idea of a West African masquerade built purposefully for people-watching, I had three conditions. The first was that the structures be visually stunning. Their exteriors were to be heavily embellished, preferably flashy, textured and captivating. This was necessary for the purpose of distraction, at which most masquerades excel. The second condition was that at no given time should the masquerade structure betray the possibility that there could be a person residing within it. The third was that the masquerade structure be transparent in such a way to allow for its entrants (gallery visitors) to always see outward through the walls, whilst avoiding being seen themselves.

Na Chainkua Reindorf, View from inside masquerade. 2016, Ithaca, N.Y.

Na Chainkua Reindorf, View from inside masquerade. 2016, Ithaca, N.Y.

I have been preoccupied for some time now with the idea of what happens inside the masquerade costume and how this interior space is perceived from the outside. This is partially because it’s a topic not often written about; as an artist, this masquerade project unfolded partly as an experiment, and partly as an investigation. I sought to recreate a physical experience by exploring a culturally sacred space within the context of an art gallery, while also threading the project with ideas borrowed from the art and cultural practices common in West African masquerade traditions.

The African masquerade tradition involves a rather diverse range of practices. Herbert M. Cole, an art historian who has written extensively about African art and masquerades, expands on the complexity of masking in Africa, explaining that not all of the masquerades have powerful and spiritual roles. The possibilities that masks have exist on a continuum, and range from very serious roles, to more lighthearted ones. A good example of a serious masquerade is the Egungun masquerade from the Yoruba people of Nigeria (image below). In the Egungun tradition, certain members have their bodies possessed by ancestral spirits, and in their embodiment, can intervene forcefully and mysteriously in human affairs, redirecting social action, punishing wrongdoers and even educating the young, as Cole explains.[1]

A more lighthearted masquerade tradition, where entertainment has become primary role is the Fancy Dress festival of Ghana. In this case, participants wear an expansive range of dramatic garb, a custom which stems from mocking European traders in the 19th century by wearing caricatured versions of their clothes and parading the streets in response to being refused entry into white owned bars. Both of these examples are evidence that the West African masquerade has always had a socio-political and historical undercurrent. When people gather to take part in or witness these events, the seemingly entertaining and often captivating spectacle has powerful consequences. It serves to remind people of how the past and present are inextricably connected, and how the moral and social welfare of the people in the community is integrally important.

Brooklyn Museum, “Yoruba Egungun Dance Costume,” Digital image, Wikimedia, Accessed January 31, 2017. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yoruba_Egungun_Dance_Costume_Brooklyn_Museum.jpg#metadata.

Brooklyn Museum, “Yoruba Egungun Dance Costume,” Digital image, Wikimedia, Accessed January 31, 2017. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yoruba_Egungun_Dance_Costume_Brooklyn_Museum.jpg#metadata.

The first thing I noticed, from observing masquerade culture, and particularly masquerades involving concealing bodies, was that the figural structures of a masquerade (as with the Yoruba Egungun Dance Costume referenced above) are designed to be perceived as entities rather than being perceived as a person wearing a costume. To an observer, the act of a person entering the costume mystifies this person’s actual body. At once, the external limits of this person’s body become extended through the sense of touch to the external limit of the masquerade itself. This event transforms the observer into an active onlooker that witnesses, firsthand, the construction a new, masqueraded body and identity.

The masquerades I constructed for this project are a hybrid of architecture and dress, and each time a person entered into the masquerade, these two elements immediately intersected with the body. When this happened, interesting audience interactions began to take place. The American author, Karen Hansen, addresses how dress and the body are intimately entangled. The entanglements are deeply entwined with the biographies of the wearers in addition to the particularities of time, space, location, site, and context. This suggests that the efficacy of perception and understanding of the dress being worn and its relation to the wearer only works within particular cultural contexts. The translation of the practice relies predominantly on both the person wearing the dress and the viewer.[2]

Hansen’s formula can be complicated in the case of the masquerade through the addition of architecture. This is especially so in the case of my project because the masquerades perform as the body, both by entirely concealing it, as would the walls of a building, and as a proxy for that same body it conceals in the onlooker’s perception. I proposed that although the masquerades are entities acting as an architectural space, they could in fact be dresses.

The perception of space and its relation to the body, understood through touch, becomes integral to the fashioning of a self. This is true both for the entrant inside as well as the onlooker outside of the masquerade. The authors Alexandra Warwick and Dani Cavallaro write on boundaries, dress, and the body; they suggest that the body is ambiguously framed: at once both a boundary and not a boundary. For example, one’s hand maintains the limit of the body until it is extended by gloves. Fingernails can be both body and waste. They explain that this ambiguity produces a complex relationship between self and non-self. With this taken into consideration, how then do we think about dress, space, and their relations to the body and self? In response, we could draw on Lacanian thought of the dress as a rim, which the authors, Warwick and Cavallaro also touch upon.[3]

A rim performs as that which is both inside and outside, further complicating the word ‘boundary’ which is ever so often tied to concepts of dress and touch, both of which lie at the edges of the body. In fact, the authors argue that clothes create an unclear boundary separating the self from the Other for if we accept that identity relies on boundaries as ideological and psychological structures designed to individuate the self, then the idea of dress complicates this idea. This is because dress both identifies the edges of the body and makes those edges private from the Other, while at the same time connecting the individual self to the collective Other and therefore presenting the body as a public spectacle.

As such, we can question the deeply-held idea of a self contained identity.[4] My masquerades, I would argue, make the idea of the body as spectacle more complex. This is because, the situation poses the provocation: who is watching who? While the masquerade is being watched, the entrant also watches the onlooker, and the spectacle in itself becomes twofold.

Warwick and Cavallaro also posit that dress acts as a constant reminder of our dependence on margins and boundaries for the purposes of self-construction. Dress as rim, boundary and margin, is particularly important to discuss, as dress performs the dual action of both touching the body and facing others externally. Inside the masquerades, however, the touch of dress is distanced from the body. There is a very obvious distinction between a body, and the rim of the structure. In entering the space, though, one must literally feel their way through a dark womb like opening, so touch nevertheless is integral to encountering the interior of the masquerade. In isolating themselves from the rest of the gallery, the entrant chooses to become one with the masquerade while at the same time is perceived as doing so.

So where, then, does the identity of the masquerade end and that of the entrant begin? Self construction is a challenge to point toward and perhaps, within the context of a masquerade, the construction of the self and Other constantly come apart and become resolved. There may be no straightforward answer to this question after all.


  1. Herbert M. Cole, I Am Not Myself: The Art of African Masquerade (Monograph Series) (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1985), 17.  ↩

  2. Karen Tranberg Hansen and D. Soyini Madison, African Dress: Fashion, Agency and Performance (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2013), 2–3.  ↩

  3. Dani Cavallaro and Alexandra Warwick, Fashioning the Frame: Boundaries, Dress and Body (Oxford: Berg, 1998), xv-xvi.  ↩

  4. Dani Cavallaro and Alexandra Warwick, Fashioning the Frame: Boundaries, Dress and Body (Oxford: Berg, 1998), xv-xvi.  ↩


Na Chainkua Reindorf is a multidisciplinary artist from Ghana, currently based in Upstate New York. She is interested in the lives of textiles and fibers and how they can be used to explore boundaries and borders in relation to place and space. Her work constantly references the multiple histories of objects and materials she uses, as they relate to the different places she calls home.