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Ambiguous agency: Dan/Mau stilt mask spirit performance as ontology in Côte d'Ivoire and the US

  • Daniel B. Reed

Abstract

In this article, I describe the belief system at the centre of Mau and Dan mask spirit performances and some implications of these beliefs in practice, and I suggest an ontological framework for interpreting the ambiguous agency embodied in such performances. I ground my discussion of this ontological framework by juxtaposing ethnographic material about non-commercial, community-based mask spirit belief and practice with details of the career of an international ‘star’ mask spirit performer, Vado Diomande. I propose that the ambiguous agency at the heart of these performances is best understood using a performance framework that locates being in process. My interlocutors’ discourse about and practices of these performances suggest that, rather than looking for ontology in performance, we understand ontology as performance – or perhaps better yet, performance as ontology. Such a framework illuminates both the challenges and the strategic advantages that ontological ambiguity presents to mask spirit performers in immigrant settings in the US. This framework also provides a philosophical grounding for theories positing African art as process, and sheds light on the ways in which mask spirit performers manoeuvre in the interstices of display and disguise, addressing both belief and market demand.

Dans cet article, l'auteur décrit le système de croyance qui est au cœur des spectacles d'esprits masqués Mau et Dan et certaines implications de ces croyances dans la pratique, et suggère un cadre ontologique pour l'interprétation de l'action ambiguë incarnée dans ces représentations. L'auteur fonde sa discussion du cadre ontologique sur une juxtaposition entre des documents ethnographiques concernant la croyance et la pratique non commerciales à base communautaire des esprits masqués, et la carrière d'un artiste de renommée internationale, Vado Diomande. Pour mieux comprendre l'action ambiguë qui est au cœur de ces représentations, l'auteur propose d'utiliser un cadre qui situe l’être dans le processus. Le discours que tiennent les interlocuteurs sur les pratiques de ces représentations suggère que plutôt que de rechercher l'ontologie dans la représentation, il faut comprendre l'ontologie comme représentation voire, mieux encore, la représentation comme ontologie. Un tel cadre met en lumière les difficultés et les avantages stratégiques que présente l'ambiguïté ontologique pour ces artistes dans les milieux immigrés aux États-Unis. Ce cadre fournit également une base philosophique aux théories qui posent l'art africain comme processus, et apporte un éclairage sur la manière dont les artistes se meuvent dans les interstices du montrer et du cacher, répondant ainsi à la croyance et à la demande.

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References

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Ambiguous agency: Dan/Mau stilt mask spirit performance as ontology in Côte d'Ivoire and the US

  • Daniel B. Reed

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