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Ijo Sawfish masker, Nigeria (detail) ©Martha G Anderson 1992 (gallery backdrop) 

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.

The 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.


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