Liturgy of the mask: creating and performing Sankofa in post-colonial Ghanaian theatre
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
This thesis investigates the contributions made by masked performances to postcolonial Ghanaian culture and national identity. Colonial contact from 1875 to 1957 included the suppression of sacred masks to allow for Christian evangelism in ways that made a tremendous impact on Ghanaian society. Europeans brought theatre to Ghana and it remains a colonial legacy to date. Although masks lost their sacredness, some were incorporated into the new masked culture that was imported by the colonial administration and became part of performances for pleasure and entertainment. Since Independence, when the first president of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, commissioned fancy dress masquerades as a national festival, masquerading in Ghana has continued to evolve from a pre-colonial sacred ritual to postcolonial aesthetic, including performances for tourists and annual festival celebrations. Nowadays, growing attention is being paid in Ghana to the idea of Sankofa, which expresses the notion of revisiting and engaging with pre-colonial beliefs, customs, and traditional practices, in ways that might be seen to reconcile post-colonial Ghanaian culture with its pre-‐colonial past. Bringing back traditional masks into post-colonial Ghanaian theatre and performance offers the potential to develop a new aesthetic and ritual power that might serve to restore balance in political, social, economic, cultural, and tribal relations. This thesis will explore masks from pre-colonial times to Independence in 1957 by focusing on Sankofa in contemporary Ghanaian masked performance. At the end, I will outline my vision for further developments in masked performance of Sankofa, addressing the questions of how the residue of the sacred can still be present in these re-purposed masks and what values these masks can attach to performances that are no longer particularly religious but are about what it means to be Ghanaian in the 21st century.