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Parody, Appropriation, and Gender Politics

The Adamma masker. Enugu, 1994. Photo: Bess Reed. Adamma dances like a man, with low, vigorous movements.

The narrative themes of the Adamma play are not new. Simon Ottenberg reported that the Afikpo Igbo masked Okumpka play, performed in the 1950s and early 1960s, contained a skit in which a young woman refused to marry any of her many suitors before finally relenting (Ottenberg 1975:105). The Adamma play also emphasized a cycle of feminine vanity and willfulness that did not appear to be disrupted by the establishment of a proper marriage. At the conclusion of the play, the main character seems to become a good and settled wife, but her dancing and mimicry outside the narrative scenes—especially her seductive closing performance—indicate that her virtue may fail after all. These two aspects of Adamma are in tension with each other and with the moral of the play.

Although Adamma suggests women’s potential for self-absorption and licentiousness—and even, as we will note, prostitution—the enactment of these character flaws is meant to be highly amusing and entertaining, and it has probably led to her popularity. If Adamma were either the good woman who learns her lesson (as depicted in the scenario and in the main scenes of the masquerade play) or simply a harlot, she might be less interesting. As she repeatedly danced, waved, and flirted extravagantly with the audience, She seemed rather like a pop star playing to her fans.

In the 1994 performance, Adamma shifted fairly rapidly between her three main performative modes: the beautiful and virtuous daughter and wife; the glamorous, energetic pop star; and the disreputable vamp who wore flashy clothes and repeatedly raised her skirt as if to advertise her availability (Fig. 14). Adamma’s parody of the way some women urinate in the open when there are no other toilet areas, by spreading her legs and raising her wrapper, also gave her an earthy quality that one Igbo woman described as “vulgar” (E. Okara, personal communication, 1994). Her oversized head-tie, splayed high above her forehead rather than precisely wrapped and folded around her head in typical Igbo fashion, also suggests the harlot, at least to some extent. In Black Gods and Kings, Robert Farris Thompson reports that Yoruba prostitutes in southern Nigeria in the 1960s advertised their services by wearing sloppy head-ties tied in a similar frontal crisscross pattern (1971:14/6). He identifies a Gelede mask in the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultur-al History as a portrayal of such a woman. One other Yoruba-area masquerade, Egungun, portrays prostitutes in order to critique their behavior (Drewal & Drewal 1983:197-201; M. Drewal 1992).

The play we saw, however, dearly delineates a more ambiguous and complex character. Adamma is a presentation by men of Igbo femininity—glamorized, idealized, parodied, and controlled. While her green, gold, and red metallic body costume with its short skirt emphasizes her luxuriant sensuality, her waist beads indicate that she is marriageable and morally desirable. Together with her makeup and hair beads, Adamma is right on the line between fashionable and outrageous. The play emphasizes that femininity is a performance. The male interpretation of female dance elements undermines the womanly facade of the masquerade, so that Adamma, like other maiden spirits, confuses the division between masculine and feminine. The masculine identity of the performer is tacitly recognized by all except young children.

This male-developed story presents women as less morally responsible than men and needing male guidance to live up to their responsibilities. By holding this young woman accountable for the ills that befall her, masculinity is given greater value. Adamma, who stands in for marriageable women generally, makes a terrible mistake in not choosing one of the good men who courted her earlier on. It is she who initiates her marriage to the spirit husband in defiance of Igbo etiquette—for women are supposed to wait until men seek them out. Yet Adamma embraces wifely virtue and works diligently within the bounds of her marriage to the spirit, demonstrating her essentially good female character. Her first marriage, the death of her spirit husband, and her attack by the leopard or monster would have been avoided had she behaved like a proper Igbo woman from the outset.

The palm-wine tapper who becomes Adamma’s second husband appears to be a metaphor for men who feel threatened by young women’s inappropriate assertiveness in marriage matters. Before her marriage to the spirit, Adamma would surely have rejected this laborer as a suitor, but he wins her by using his gun to demonstrate his virtuous and authoritative masculinity. Adamma’s willful femininity would have resulted in disorder, with the animal realm symbolized by the leopard winning out over the human realm safeguarded by men. This is the one moment of the play when Adamma cedes control of the performance arena to the other characters: she stands at the margins while the palm-wine tapper dispatches the leopard. In her second marriage, Adamma seems to accept male authority and becomes a mother, as Igbo women should do.

A quote from an elder in a pamphlet produced for the Mmanwu Festival (1990:13) indicates a desire by many Igbo men to connect gender identity and gender politics with masquerades: “The masquerade institution is what separates men from the women showing us superior to them; it is the only thing that marks-off who is a man and who is a woman.” Some men apparently perceive of gender identity as fluid and in need of stabilization. Yet the Adamma masquerade does not offer this stability. Danced and incarnated by a tall man, the lead character is represented as simultaneously female and male. Through parody, femininity is criticized and then idealized, controlled and, finally, playfully indulged. Adamma’s concluding flamboyant dance displays suggest that male authority may not control female behavior after all. It blurs the line between “femininity” as enacted by women, and the “feminine” critiqued by male maskers. Because their roles in Adamma chastise women for their vanity and assertiveness, these maskers are allowed to participate in Igbo femininity, normally off limits to men except in the performance of other humorous parodies of women or the maiden-spirit masquerades that honor virtuous female ancestors.

Although the main theme of the Adamma play and the act of masquerading itself are deeply rooted in Igbo tradition, the main character’s costume and movements are contemporary components of southern Nigerian culture. A variety of dance styles invigorate Adamma’s performance. For example, Nigerian women told us that young people should have a fast, energetic dance style, while the movements of elders should be slow and controlled to reflect their greater wisdom, status, and calmness. They also said that men should dance more vigorously than women. Adamma’s dancing was an active, male-inflected version of young women’s dance that sent dust flying around her feet and the rows of bells sewn on her legs jingling [pictured]. Periodically, however, one would glimpse some other dance movements. One night at an Enugu restaurant, we saw the pop singer Michael Jackson performing endlessly on an MTV videotape loop. With white-gloved hands he pressed the air in front of his body, pushed his palms down to his sides, and snapped his fingers as he sauntered about. At the Mmanwu Festival, the Adamma masker appeared to have incorporated elements of Jackson’s dance routines, which themselves sometimes bear traces of African kinesthetic practices. The mix of Igbo tradition and global popular culture made for a quintessentially contemporary performance. This appropriation of and reinvention of pop star behavior was also expressed by Adamma’s waving at the audience and her posing for the cameras.

In recent decades Igbo women have become increasingly active participants in the Nigerian economy, selling in the markets, running shops, and becoming college-educated professionals. Many are powerful, assertive, and glamorous as well as virtuous, dedicated, and hard working. Sometimes their new roles seem to conflict with traditional social values, leaving the subject of women’s vanity ripe for parodic critique by men. This present-day situation is expressed in Adamma, just as participation in contemporary global society is reflected by the masking troupe’s appropriation of Michael Jackson’s dance moves and its adoption of the video medium and the theatrical scenario. Through her style, context, and dramatic form, Adamma ties together tradition, innovation, and contemporary experience in an entertaining masquerade.

A Contemporary Igbo Maiden Spirt. Benjamin Hufbauer and Bess Reed. African Arts, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Autumn, 2003), pp. 63-65

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