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Mobilizing Masquerades: Urban Cultural Arts in Sierra Leone and Beyond

  • Author(s): Maples, Amanda M.
  • Advisor(s): Cameron, Elisabeth L
  • et al.

Contrary to conventional academic knowledge, which considers African masked performance as a specifically rural or folkloric manifestation, masquerade has been and is still being invented in Africa’s cities. Ordehlay masquerade arts were founded in the tense socioeconomic landscape of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city, by various marginalized migrant communities locally and later, abroad. Even though the youthful masquerade arts were seen as dangerous and subsequently banned by the governmend or shunned by the public, they eventually gained recognition and a foothold in the political, cultural, and economic cityscape. Particularly successful because of their open membership, organizational structure, willingness to adapt and adopt any cultural aesthetics, and ability to entertain, they became so successful that they were able to provide welfare and mutual aid for their members and immediate community.

Originally tied to the specificity of Freetown’s locality, Ordehlay was quickly and eagerly adopted by rural towns elsewhere in Sierra Leone as part of population growth and urbanization strategies that mirrored those in Freetown, and because they were seen as being successful and integral to the country’s cultural milieu. Feeding off of one another to create a local yet shifting sense of identity as cosmopolitan/urban or rural, the masquerades break down the urban to rural binary.

Similar masquerade societies are now cropping up in the diaspora as migrant communities and masquerades themselves expand and contract through the agency of digital and social technologies. Drawing from and connecting to imaginaries of home and diaspora, social media becomes an empowering tool for Ordehlay and related Hunting society members to manufacture steadily increasing bonds outside of family, race, religion, or age—echoing Ordehlay’s founding recipe. The dissertation argues that publicly performed Ordehlay masks are designed by an ever-increasing community of migrants and youth to creatively access, harness, and control the various fabrics of a globalized cityscape, at home and in the diaspora. They then influenced new, and inherently contemporary, cultural traditions as membership and masquerade aesthetics fluidly mobilize and are mobilized by the communities that need them.

This dissertation ultimately seeks to challenge disciplinary and categorical boundaries of art, history, and culture so as to contribute to a larger shift that incorporates and values multicultural intelligences, aesthetics, and worldviews beyond the confines of age, geography, space, and time. It additionally considers youth and marginalized communities as cultural and political actors that create and negotiate artforms, meriting scholarly—and public—attention. Actively engaged with their local and global environments, Ordehlay members do indeed have agency: in performing themselves, they perform—and shape—the city and the world.

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