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Letting the mask slip: the shameless fame of Sierra Leone's Gongoli

  • Samuel Mark Anderson


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.

Grotesque et vulgaire, le personnage masqué Gongoli bouleverse les codes de la bienséance mendé dans sa folle quête de faire rire. Son inconvenance va jusqu’à s'autoriser à baisser le masque, révélant de façon comique l'identité de son danseur et subvertissant l'anonymat si fondamental au statut de ses fameux esprits compagnons. Pourtant, malgré ces transgressions, il figure parmi les personnages les plus chéris des riches traditions du spectacle au Sierra Leone. La popularité de Gongoli repose sur son irrévérence vis-à-vis des lois fondamentales de la danse masquée, des lois qui régulent également l’équilibre entre action individuelle et responsabilité collective, entre désir interne et contrainte externe. La seule qualité nécessaire pour incarner Gongoli est l'impudence (ngufe baa), et les meilleurs artistes sont des acrobates qui bravent des risques non pas physiques mais sociaux. Cet article s'intéresse à Siloh, un artiste itinérant dont la célébrité tient à sa ressemblance troublante au Gongoli qu'il incarne souvent. Le personnage composite Siloh Gongoli exemplifie une esthétique comique appréciée partout au Sierra Leone, que ce soit dans les contes, les rituels, les festivals ou les programmes radiophoniques et télévisuels. Bien que ces conventions aient des finalités de mobilisation différentes, chacune d'elles ébranle les principes de l'effacement de soi et du privilège géroncratique, et masque le pouvoir en se jouant sans vergogne des tensions existentielles entre le soi intérieur et le soi extérieur.

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Letting the mask slip: the shameless fame of Sierra Leone's Gongoli

  • Samuel Mark Anderson


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