Academic journal article Africa

The Power of Ambiguity: The Nature and Efficacy of the Zamble Masks Revealed by 'Disease Masks' among the Gouro People (Cote D'ivoire)

Academic journal article Africa

The Power of Ambiguity: The Nature and Efficacy of the Zamble Masks Revealed by 'Disease Masks' among the Gouro People (Cote D'ivoire)

Article excerpt


Among the Gouro masks, Zamble, a composite animal figure, and Gu, a fine- featured woman's face, are known to art lovers around the world. Today their profane avatars, Flali and Zaouli, are at the heart of masquerades that are much enjoyed by audiences. But this appreciation concerns only the 'pretty' aspects, that is to say the civilized and orderly side of an ensemble that also has a reverse side: the disease masks, sprung from disorder, avatars of the more powerful Zauli, described as the wild brother or husband of Zamble in the genealogical idiom employed by the Gouro when referring to the masks. These masks are created by each generation of young people and are central figures in rituals of inversion that express the upheavals of the times. At the same time as they establish their creators' reputations, they serve as a record of these events for the Gouro. Descended from the initial trio of masks (Zauli, Zamble, Gu), they prolong the trend to secularization of this family of masks from the sacred wood. In tracking this tradition over twenty years we can see a process of resacralization. When the youths' comments are analysed in the light of encyclopaedic knowledge acquired in the course of anthropological research on health, we can understand the necessity of the mask figure, and going further can understand what ah ugly profane mask is, what it presents and the role it plays. In return the Zamble mask and its associates take on another dimension, a dimension that opens up exploration of the unknown via their intrinsic ambiguity and the transgressive behaviour they allow during the time of the ritual.


Parmi les masques Gouro, Zamble, figure animale composite, et Gu, fin visage de femme, sont internationalement connus des amateurs d'art. Leurs avatars profanes actuels, Flali et Zaouli, sont au centre de mascarades tres prisees du public. Mais il s'agit la du seul aspect <>, c'est-a-dire civil, conforme a l'ordre, d'un ensemble comportant son envers, les masques maladies, laids, issus du desordre, avatars du plus puissant Zauli, frere sauvage, ou mari, de Zamble, dans l'idiome genealogique employe par les Gouro a leur propos. Ces masques mis en place a chaque generation de jeunes sont au centre de rituels d'inversions ou se disent les bouleversements de l'epoque. Tout en etablissant la renommee de leurs createurs, ils valent comme trace de ces evenements pour les Gouro. Issus du trio initial de masques (Zauli, Zamble, Gu) ils prolongent la tendance a la secularisation de cette famille de masques sortie du bois sacre. Mais le suivi sur vingt ans de cette tradition permet de mettre en evidence un processus de resacralisation. Analyser les commentaires des jeunes a la lumiere des connaissances encyclopediques acquises dans le cadre de recherches en anthropologie de la sante permet de comprendre a quoi correspond la necessite de la figure du masque et au-dela ce qu'est un masque profane laid, ce qu'il represente, quel est son role. En retour, le masque Zamble et ses comparses prennent une autre dimension, celle d'ouvrir a l'exploration de l'inconnu grace a l'ambiguite qui leur est intrinseque et les comportements transgressifs qu'ils s'autorisent, le temps du rituel.


Gouro masks, well known to art lovers, are at the centre of masquerades in Cote d'Ivoire, their country of origin. These performances are much appreciated by audiences, so much so that avatars of certain masks, sometimes borrowed by neighbouring ethnic groups, are presented in shows for tourists in the capital and abroad. This is the case for Flali and Zaouli. The latter is renowned for the varieties of scenes represented in the sculpted top-pieces that crown the mask. For the Gouro most of these masks derive from each other and are related, as is expressed in the genealogical idiom used when talking about them. In this idiom Flali, a feminine mask, is the distant grandchild of the Gu fertility mask which may have inspired Modigliani (Wilkinson 1991). …

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