Patrick R. McNaughton. A Bird Dance Near Saturday City: Sidi Ballo and the Art of West African Masquerade

Patrick R. McNaughton.  A Bird Dance Near Saturday City: Sidi Ballo and the Art of West African MasqueradeBloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.  Pp. xvii+300, photographs, notes, index.  $65.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Nichole Tramel
Indiana University

Patrick McNaughton’s work, A Bird Dance Near Saturday City: Sidi Ballo and the Art of West African Masquerade, chronicles and investigates a particularly resonant masquerade performance of Sidi Ballo’s decades ago in a small town near Saturday City, Mali, as the text’s title implies.  For years, the author struggled with how to accurately and fairly depict this powerful experience, the product of Sidi Ballo’s genius and the other talented dancers, singers, and community members that contributed to the performance.  This book is the result of his journey.  Accordingly, A Bird Dance Near Saturday City devotes equal attention to Sidi Ballo’s virtuosity, elements of bird dance performance, the performance itself, and the forms and functions of aesthetics.  Examining both the particular and the general, McNaughton provides a useful and engaging account of Sidi Ballo’s June 1978 Dogoduman bird dance performance; in so doing, he examines its components and contributors, and Sidi Ballo as a performer and artist.  Additionally, the author discusses artistry, aesthetics, and performance theory, both philosophically and practically.  He looks at each of these in terms of the bird dance(s), Mande culture, and society in general.

In the introduction, McNaughton provides the contextual background for the 1978 performance of the bird dance that he witnessed, as well as his connection to this event.  That is, the author notes the location of the performance, its ethnic context, and proximity to various influences.  He also describes his process of involvement with the masquerade: how he came to act as impromptu documenter, what the profound impact upon him was, and how he came to approach the subject.  From the introduction, the author launches into thick description of the 1978 performance.  In outline and narrative form, McNaughton details the dance so that the participants, sequence, and content are identified.  Next, the author provides a chapter entitled and devoted to the issue of “How to view a bird dance.”  This tutorial provides further cultural context:  what occurred the night before the performance, what the roles of the individuals, group performers, audience, and documenters were, and how the parts integrated to develop the synergic whole.

The second section, “Sidi Ballo and the disposition of individuals,” first explores Ballo’s artistic prowess, manipulation, technique, and mastery during the 1978 dance, and then during a later performance.  McNaughton next offers a biography of Sidi Ballo, including his family background as a blacksmith and how he became involved in performance through his community youth association.  Furthermore, he focuses on how Ballo’s intellect and personality traits accentuate and enhance his performative persona.  In the last chapter in this section, “Individuals Intertwined,” the author engages in theoretical examinations of the complex relationship between individuals and society, as well as how ethnography has typically approached the subject.  In particular, McNaughton acknowledges the avoidance of individual agency in African art as compared to Western art in the art historical tradition.  That is, African art history has not given adequate accolades to the individual artist, instead relegating African art to a lower art status characterized by less aesthetic and more “traditional” or “communal” functions.  Therein lies the significance of A Bird Dance Near Saturday City: Sidi Ballo and the Art of West African Masquerade: McNaughton’s attention to Sidi Ballo as an artist successfully remedies this problem.

The third part, “From Dogoduman to an aesthetic affect,” begins with a discussion of the correlation between aesthetics and beauty, and then shifts to an analysis of the Mande aesthetic environment; in the latter section, the author identifies what is viewed as art as well as how aesthetics are evaluated in the Mande cultural tradition.  The theoretical and the particular mingle when McNaughton finally examines how artistic form engages with aesthetics in Mande culture.  He then concludes with “A Mande aesthetic profile” and “An aesthetic of effect.”  In the former, the author generates criteria for understanding the value of aesthetics in Mande culture, from epics to society, and from art to the bird dance.  In the latter, McNaughton lists how aesthetic Mande values pertain to and are evident in the 1978 bird dance.  Finally, the author theoretically examines the relationships between meaning and art, as well as participant and observer, and how these binaries correspond to cultural Mande concepts.  McNaughton specifically analyzes the meanings of the Mande bird dance by examining bird symbolism and its relation to the artistry and aesthetic elements described previously.  The last chapter of A Bird Dance Near Saturday City: Sidi Ballo and the Art of West African Masquerade thus brings McNaughton’s exposition full circle, confirming the presence and importance of bird dances in modern Mande culture and society as well as reiterating the importance of individual artists, by discussing the evolution of Sidi Ballo’s bird dance techniques and routine.

Patrick McNaughton’s rich text engages with several intriguing problems, topics, and binaries of studying art and performance.  While the author offers a compelling report of the bird dance, Sidi Ballo, and the importance of both in Mande culture, the true beauty of this work is not in the content necessarily, but in the author’s approach.  McNaughton’s poetic examination is reflective, informative, and lucid, and his honest narrative of the result of one profoundly impactful performance reminds his audience of the power of art.  The text’s organization also demonstrates a useful technique for the inquiry of both theory and performance dynamics.  This unique investigation attends to what has often been ignored in the scholarly research of African art and artistry in general, making it a functional paradigm for performance analysts and African art scholars in particular.

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