“Letting the Mask Slip: The Shameless Fame of Sierra Leone’s Gongoli.” Africa 88:4 (November 2018): 718-43.
For a special issue on “Art and the individual in African masquerades,” edited by Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi.
Grotesque and vulgar, the masked character Gongoli upends the codes of Mende decorum in his madcap pursuit of laughs. His impropriety goes so far as to allow his mask to fall, comically revealing the identity of his dancer and subverting the anonymity so elemental to his fellow spirits’ vaunted status. Yet despite such transgressions, he stands among the most beloved figures of Sierra Leone’s rich performance traditions. Gongoli’s popularity hinges on his irreverence towards the fundamental laws of masked dance, laws that also regulate the balance between individual agency and communal responsibility, between internal desire and external restraint. The only quality necessary to play Gongoli is shamelessness (ngufe baa), and the greatest performers are acrobats braving risks that are not physical, but social. This article follows Siloh, an itinerant performer whose celebrity inheres in his uncanny similarity to the Gongoli he often plays. The composite figure Siloh Gongoli exemplifies a comic aesthetic relished throughout Sierra Leone in storytelling, ritual, festivals, videos and radio shows. Although mobilized for different ends, each of these conventions undermines principles of self-effacement, gerontocratic privilege and esoteric power by shamelessly playing with and within the existential tensions between interior and exterior selves.