- Mask of the Spring Water: Dance as a Source of Culture in Africa
BirgitǺkesson (1908-2001), "mother of modern dance in Sweden," was also a scholar with an integrity almost brutal in her search for the "right" expressive nuance of an ununciation, whether it concerned body language and the graphic or the visual systems. Her reputation as a pioneer and an avant-garde dancer and choreographer is well-established in Scandinavia and beyond, but less is known about her contributions to an understanding of African aesthetics and dance. This is why this book, a formidable and long-awaited translation by Rachelle Purveyor and Håkan Lövgren, will be welcomed by anybody across the globe who takes an interest in exploring, in her company, "African dance" as it is not normally pursued by anthropologists, ethnologists, or art historians, as a "story that cannot be told" but that needs to be told before it is too late.
Ǻkesson started her journeys to Africa in the mid-sixties, studying initiations for girls and boys in Zaramo and Makonde villages in Tanzania; dances of Coptic priests in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; myths about Olende in Congo-Brazzaville; a Gha funeral for a "queen mother" in Osu, Ghana; and Gelede performance in Ijio, Nigeria. Hundreds of other encounters took place during the thirteen years that she traveled in and out of Africa (1964-1977). She came to realize early, in her own words, the impact of "the cultural clash that colonization had caused and the no man's land that had arisen for the young generation in the cities and at the universities. I understood how much I needed to learn about Africa in order to convey something meaningful" (320). And this learning process involved as emphatically a remorseless battle with the Western logistics of cultural presentation.
I met her for the first time in 1986, three years after the Swedish original, Källvattens mask, had appeared, for a discussion of an essay I was going to write [End Page 150] based on the Alekwu ancestor mask in Uturkpo, Benue Plateau State, Nigeria (130-49). We sat hours and hours debating what particular Swedish words we were to employ to best translate the "authenticity" of the initiation rite and the chant "The Journey to Igbira," while avoiding the luring pitfalls of exoticism and scholarly chauvinism with their metaphors and similes that anxiously urged to assist us. Those few grand hours with Ǻkesson will always wake upon me and they do harass me whenever I am tempted to opt for a rhetorical and basically a prejudicial shortcut to "writing Africa." Ǻkesson taught me that "[n]otes are a means of awaiting clarity" (9) and that comparative studies is no less or more than rewriting the Self.
Mask of the Spring Water is divided into three very broad parts: the first centers on dance as an initiation for young people, the second on adult dances, and the third on dances that teach community contact with creative nature. Each division blends gender groups and each group seeks examples from the parts of Africa listed in the above overview of Ǻkesson's travels. But what is remarkable is, of course, her organic or hermeneutic "storytelling" method. It is also ideological. However, the traditional concept of the work "book" defies the way it is organized. It is not primarily meant to be read in a continuous or sequential way. A single page may be tripartite or even four-partite where each part—be it an ethnological description, a poetic wording, a choreographic sketch by hand, a photograph, a scholarly commentary—interact with each other across the page, deepening the experience of the reader/viewer. You may try to embody "all" of its tempers, sounds, languages, and movements, or go for one or two singular patterns within each procession or ceremony. Someone interested in the rhythmic pulse of the dance may choose to follow the Mask...