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  • In the Spirit and in the FleshWomen, Masquerades, and the Cross River
  • all photos by the author except where otherwise noted

The Cross River, which begins in the Cameroon mountains and rolls west and then south toward the Nigerian coast, has provided a fertile climate for ritual systems and masquerades that has been amplified in part due to centuries of intense trade in agricultural products, foreign goods, and humans (Fig. 1). Prior to road travel, the Cross River acted like an umbilical cord connecting hinterland to coastline. Trade along the river sparked a chain reaction that allowed art forms to leap across ethnic, national, and international boundaries, feeding ritual associations that defy geographic and ethnic divisions. While the male ritual association Ékpè/Mgbè (the Leopard Society) is the best-known example of this, there is a vast nexus of performance traditions in which masquerades—including those by women—are abundant. In this article, I will consider patterns of concealing and revealing the female body in masquerades, rituals, and spectacles of pageantry. Through a variety of seemingly different case studies from Cross River and its diaspora, told in three acts, I will analyze how the gendered body is inscribed with meaning in ritual systems where knowledge and secrecy are highly valued and authority can be either asserted or transgressed.

Act I: Africa is based upon original research on women's masquerades that completely conceal the female body, performed by the Bakor-Ejagham and their neighbors in the middle Cross River region. I explain these masquerades in light of a spectrum of women's performance traditions, possibly understood as masquerade, that reveal the female dancer's identity, or much more in the case of ritual nudity. Act 2: Caribbean follows the flow of the transatlantic slave trade to Cuba, where the Abakua (the Cuban equivalent of the Leopard Society) reformulates Cross River traditions with new gendered meanings within a confraternity of hypermasculinity and where there is no longer a dual-gendered ritual system. Because women in Cuba are noticeably absent from Abakua ritual, which involves inscription of the silenced female body, it was left to noninitiates such as the female printmaker Belkis Ayón (1967-1999) to respond to Abakua through her own ritual act of reinscribing. Act 3: The Return Ticket considers how the diaspora returns to Africa with the importation of Trinidadian Carnival. In Calabar Carnival, "the biggest street party in Africa," female performers display elaborate costumes and skin within an expanded landscape of pageantry and masquerade. So, from Cross River to the Caribbean and back again, I will trace rituals that invoke flesh and spirit and rely upon either revealing or concealing the female body.

In this article, "in the flesh" refers to the physical and symbolic use of the female body/skin within performance traditions that allow individuals to engage "in the spirit," or to access resources in the less-visible world. In addition to exploring how flesh and spirit are significant in "traditional" ritual practice, I also consider the layered meanings of flesh and spirit associated with church doctrines related to human attempts to achieve divine redemption or the joining of spirit and flesh in the process of becoming transformed and born again (within increasingly popular charismatic church movements). In light of the many meanings associated with flesh and spirit, I consider how women and masks are used to navigate and shape complex systems of power through ritual acts and bodily knowledge within local and global frameworks.

act 1: africa

The gendered body, whether it is concealed within a masquerade costume or adorned and displayed, is an important component of Cross River art and ritual. Moreover, there are many instance in the Cross River region whereby signs (writing) are drawn upon [End Page 46] the body1—more often than not the female body—or a representation of the body. For example, older women decorate the bodies of young moninkim—girls who have undergone ritual seclusion and circumcision. With beautifully designed skin and elaborate coiffures, they emerge from the "fattening house" physically and psychologically transformed into young women (prepared for marriage) and they dance (Fig. 2). Similarly, postmenopausal women paint over incised lines on the "body...


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pp. 46-61
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