Masking was an integral part of Yorùbá religious culture which withstood the horrors of the Middle Passage. Grenada was a Yorùbá cultural area in the New World and the dominant African influence in the years immediately following Emancipation, arriving in their hundreds as indentured servants, and settling exclusively in the Yorùbá stronghold villages of Rose Hill, Concord, Munich, Chantimelle, La Fillette, Mount Rodney, Hermitage and Mount Rich. French settlers imported masked pagentry into Grenada as part of their pre-Lenten culture. To ensure the African soul was not extinguished, a large number of the people exiled to this island developed a special Christian interpretation based on surviving elements of African spirituality, creating carnival, from which the ShortKnee emerged, symbols of a cohesive Yorùbá cultural identity in exile over 3000 miles away on a small island in the eastern Caribbean.
Earlier this year I watched a murder mystery that had as part of the plot, painted clown faces on eggs, an early version of clown copyright. A bit of google later, I discovered that there is a Clowns International in England and a similar organisation in the US, both withegg collections, which apparently number into the hundreds. The players of the ShortKnee mas hide their faces behind masks of painted metal mesh. In the absence of a similar collection of ShortKnee masks for display or research, I began to collect photos, online and from colleagues, to the masks, some of which I have transferred onto boli, half-cut calabashes, instead of eggs.
Why calabash? The calabash has historic connections to Grenada, as it grows here in abundance and to the ShortKnee, as it was used to create masks before bulk imports from Europe early in the 20thcentury. Several references point to the word boli (spelled alternatively bouri, bolie, bolee, bullie, bowlie, boliw, bolo or basi) as a gourd or calabash, and/or a basin an amulet or power device or object used to contain an offering and/or a spiritual or divine power. The boli (Mende word for basin) has several social meanings. Young children fed from bowlies were thought to become brighter and learn faster, possible because the bowlie held more food? For women, the boliw (Bamana word meaning poisonous stomach) contained important magical ingredients which gave women a powerful right to produce and control life – the extract of calabash seeds as a traditional abortifacient. Finally, boli is the Yorùbá name for plantain roasted in a similar manner to whole corn, and served with coconut or roasted peanuts….connecting with slavery, plantation life and plantian walks.
Full faceShortKnee masks are handmade from wire mesh edged in a binding made from milk tins cut into strips. Similar masks are worn by John Bull and the Highlanders in Antigua, by clowns in the Virgin Islands, the Wanaragua-Garífuna of Belize, the Jonkonnu of the Bahamas, the Dominican Bande Mauvais and the masquerades of Saint Kitts, Puerto Rico, Montserrat, and a few other places with costumes and conduct similar to Yorùbá Egungun festivals.
|Grenada ShortKnee mask markings on calabash boli|
It is interesting to note that full face ShortKnee masks were banned by the People’s Revolutionary Government and still cannot legally be worn to completely hide a player’s face. This partial concealment not only reduces their Egúngún mystique, but when worn on half over a player’s white-powdered face, is remarkably similar in fashion to small (just over seven inches in length) Oyo Egúngún wood face masks from southwest Nigeria, which have evolved out of the Igboho, or exile of peoples from the Yorùbá homelands in the 16thcentury.
The wire gauze used for the masks was practical and readily available – a fine gauge used for food safes before refrigerators were available. In making the mask, the opposite of what it represents adds power – the eyes and mouth are African, whilst the facial hair and face colour is distinctly colonial European. The mask construction is geometric, in black on red, or pink, or red on pink. Eyebrows are connected or at least very close together, give a sense of annoyance. The nose bridge is formed by folding the mesh, but few show a definitive nose apart from some tear drop/sweat outlines in white or black. The mask is painted to depict a Caucasian European – pink with blue eyes, white or pale representing white or colourless spirits, or a featureless and faceless black mesh which allowed one to breathe, see, obscured and protected one’s face. On the sculpture masks of the Yorùbáland, red is a power colour. Igbo masks are known to be pink with eyes are coffee bean shaped or almond shaped. It is possible that the pinkish red colour of the ShortKnee mask references power over sunburned colonials.
Constant smiling is not a Yorùbá characteristic and sealed lips frequent Yorùbá statuary as a sign of seriousness and discretion. West African characteristics on the mask include the shape of the eyes, mouth, and use of geometry in the design. The blankness of a pinpoint eye, white on black or vice versa, may have been blue eyes/pupils, suggest awareness, an observing in quiet, with slightly downcast lids, to be taken as deference. The shape of the eyes resembles a coffee bean shape, specific to that of the Nok culture (Africa’s earliest sculptural tradition outside of Egypt according to Frank Willett). Nok characteristics of almond-shaped or triangular eyes and parted lips persist over hundreds of square miles and centuries of production.
According to the slave voyages database, the major points of embarkation of over 120,000 slaves destined to Grenada during the high traffic years of 1751-1800 were
· Senegambia and off-shore Atlantic
· Sierra Leone
· Windward Coast
· Gold Coast
· Bight of Benin
· Bight of Biafra
· West Central Africa and St. Helena
The black markings on the ShortKnee masks may well be representation of male facial hair growth patterns and fashions, but could also stand for ‘Country Marks’ on the cheeks, chin and forehead. In which case, these abstractions help preserve and stand for differences in culture, tribe nation country, fragmentary reminders of captured peoples from broad culture areas concentrated in African ports, then shipped to Grenada, as part of the general structure of the transatlantic slave-trade.