Series “Word-Breaks” Mummenschanz

decolonial – Leimert Park has traditionally been the centre of African-American culture in Los Angeles: the Festival of Masks has been held here for years, creating a link between West African rituals and contemporary American culture.
Leimert Park has traditionally been the centre of African-American culture in Los Angeles: the Festival of Masks has been held here for years, creating a link between West African rituals and contemporary American culture. | Photo (detail): Ringo Chiu ©

Quite a number of words are still firmly established in German language use today – even though they came into existence at a time that barely has anything to do with our diverse present. In this series, Elisabeth Wellershaus tries to fathom them out and reinterpret them from a decolonial perspective. This time she takes a look at the archaic term Mummenschanz.

By Elisabeth Wellershaus

Pippi Langstrumpf was almost a must for the girls of my generation, while the boys went for wizards – long before Harry Potter. Other than that, the carnival costumes of my schooldays ranged from favourites such as vampire and more dubious giant baby disguises. The only real fail with regard to appropriateness was when I wore a colourful taffeta affair that was meant to make me look like a Mexican lady. Overall, becoming immersed in different characters was simple and unquestioned fun. It wasn’t until much later that I started to question where the desire for transformation came from.
 
Initially I was just following tradition: carnival was first celebrated in ancient times, later the “Mummenschanz” (masquerade) was adopted in a Christian context. It was that time of year when people just didn’t take things too seriously. Back in the day they used to party hard – originally in the form of pre-Christian rituals, then at what was known as the Festival of Fools. Since then manageable levels of debauchery disrupt the otherwise virtuous lifestyles of the revellers. Societies have lived out their uninhibited sides through costume parties for centuries, with “decent citizens” dressing up in costumes and masks. Or they experiment with the reversal of social order. For instance in the Saudi city of Jeddah where, at the end of pilgrimages, people used to celebrate a women’s carnival long before they did in Cologne. Admittedly the term Mummenschanz, which is derived from a game of luck using dice, has negative connotations nowadays ­– as an act that is easy to see through. In medieval German however, the word “schanze” also encompasses the meaning of chance. And to this day the desire for a playful transformation of relationships is still the motivation for masquerades from Rio to the industrial Ruhr.
 
Personally the theme of transformation interests me for completely different reasons today. I rediscovered it in a London suburb, where I lived while I was studying. Never before had I experienced such diversity as there was in Tottenham, as a young black woman I had rarely been able to move around through everyday life without being noticed. Living in a new place and speaking a foreign language, I discovered unknown nuances of my identity. Against a different background I had become a different person in the eyes of my neighbours and fellow students – because the stereotypes in London suburbs were not the same as in German ones. It seemed that feelings of belonging were flexible. And apparently you didn’t need a costume at all to break away from familiar structures.

Memories in disguise  

Back in Germany I observed how costumes themselves were often experimental in a way far from the usual masquerade traditions. I discovered variations in the use of costumes that fell well outside the bounds of foolery – quiet and comforting, occupying a space away from the carnival. For instance when friends’ children, after the death of their grandparents, spent weeks snuggling into Grandpa’s djellaba or wearing Grandma’s bling. Their dress-ups told a story of how a heritage of fabric and jewellery created a sense of direct closeness – it was a narrative of connection.
 
I imagine that my grandmother might have sometimes worn the head wrap in the same way that I do nowadays when it rains. Of course I can’t be certain, we never met each other. I never made it to Equatorial Guinea to visit her, because it always seemed too far away from Europe for my father. As a result the scarf I had seen her wearing on a photo remained a playful connection with an unknown relative. One of many hairstyles that’s considered as a symbol of self-empowerment in some African and Afro-diaspora cultures, in my mind also belonged to my legendary resistant grandmother.
 
Of course that’s a personal and nostalgic interpretation. The invisible backstory to an outfit that’s understood quite differently by a German audience. “Is that religion or folklore?” a woman once asked at a party as I queued at the bar with my head wrap. In an instant the individual story behind my headgear disappeared, obscured by her perspective, and the cloth mutated into a cultural uniform.
 
Theoretically you can wear almost anything these days in places like Berlin. There’s hardly a need for anyone to feel “disguised” in the bigger cities – even if the standard wardrobe consists of frog costumes and tutus. Admittedly that only applies on condition that people don’t perceive a “different” appearance as a threat. As soon as something like religious head coverings are involved, many people in Germany still face scepticism and hostility – even in times when obligatory face coverage will mask us all for an indefinite period. Frantz Fanon wrote poignantly about this back in the early 1950s in Black Skin, White Masks: about the presumption within a exclusive categorisation of the “other”, and the traumas that arise from the resulting pressure to conform.

Breaking the masquerade of attributions 

Decades later his message is received cautiously. At least the unquestioned status of stereotypes is slowly breaking down in cultural contexts. Perhaps this is clearest amongst artists from the Global South. In places where creative minds from the former colonies and within the diaspora strive for a transparent handling of a past that’s still often ignored elsewhere. For instance, last winter Namibian artist Nashilongweshipe Mushaandja brought the city centre of Yaoundé to life with his performance “The Dance of the Rubber Tree”. Cloaked in endless swathes of bright fabric, he had engaged the attention of passers-by and street vendors within minutes. On the Place de L’Indépendence against a backdrop of spherical sounds on electric guitar, he and his performers told the story of the wounds from the colonial past and the sense of security within resistant communities. He spoke of blood and violence, but also of the smells, spices and traditions of his childhood. A dramaturgical mix of styles that exploded into the sedated pace of an uneventful afternoon in Cameroon. But when his group started moving, a spark was ignited. Passers-by joined the procession, coming right into the theatre where the play finished in a spectacular decolonial manifestation.
  • decolonial - Costumed carnivalists in front of the stage at the Alter Markt in Cologne, February 20, 2020. On Weiberfastnacht, the street carnival is traditionally opened at the Alter Markt in Cologne. Horst Galuschka © picture alliance/dpa
    Costumed carnivalists in front of the stage at the Alter Markt in Cologne, February 20, 2020. On Weiberfastnacht, the street carnival is traditionally opened at the Alter Markt in Cologne.
  • decolonial – Cologne Carnival 2020: Impressions and images of running groups and joking during the Rose Monday procession Jens Krick © picture alliance / Flashpic
    Cologne Carnival 2020: Impressions and images of running groups and joking during the Rose Monday procession
  • decolonial – Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja's performance “The Dance of the Rubber Tree” is not only about the wounds of the colonial past. It is also about the smells and spices of his childhood - the ingredients his mother used in her kitchen. © Goethe-Institut / Yuan Yamsi
    Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja's performance “The Dance of the Rubber Tree” is not only about the wounds of the colonial past. It is also about the smells and spices of his childhood - the ingredients his mother used in her kitchen.
  • decolonial – Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja brings the street in front of the former censorship board in Yaoundé with performers and his audience to a standstill. © Goethe-Institut / Yuan Yamsi
    Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja brings the street in front of the former censorship board in Yaoundé with performers and his audience to a standstill.
  • decolonial –  Christian Etongo's performance “After Tears” is based on the tradition of the Tsô, a reconciliation and purification ceremony of the Beti from Cameroon. © Goethe-Institut / Yuan Yamsi
    Christian Etongo's performance “After Tears” is based on the tradition of the Tsô, a reconciliation and purification ceremony of the Beti from Cameroon.
  • decolonial – Christian Etongo believes in the power of reconciliation and in the power of ritual. In “After Tears” the Cameroonian performer combines both. © Elisabeth Wellershaus
    Christian Etongo believes in the power of reconciliation and in the power of ritual. In “After Tears” the Cameroonian performer combines both.
  • decolonial – Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja performed “The Dance of the Rubber Tree” in the middle of the Independence Square in Yaoundé. Every now and again, hawkers ran through the production to sell their wares. Until some stopped to watch the performance. © Elisabeth Wellershaus
    Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja performed “The Dance of the Rubber Tree” in the middle of the Independence Square in Yaoundé. Every now and again, hawkers ran through the production to sell their wares. Until some stopped to watch the performance.
  • decolonial – “There are emotional moments in almost every performance,” says Mushaandja, “for example when the audience accepts small gifts from us performers.” © Elisabeth Wellershaus
    “There are emotional moments in almost every performance,” says Mushaandja, “for example when the audience accepts small gifts from us performers.”
  • decolonial – A little later in the performance, the melons, which are wrapped in white cloth here, are opened and bring back memories of burst skulls. © Elisabeth Wellershaus
    A little later in the performance, the melons, which are wrapped in white cloth here, are opened and bring back memories of burst skulls.
  • decolonial – At the end of “The Dance of the Rubber Tree” it is all about reconciliation: The final manifesto ends with the words: “Let us drink tea and sing love songs!” © Elisabeth Wellershaus
    At the end of “The Dance of the Rubber Tree” it is all about reconciliation: The final manifesto ends with the words: “Let us drink tea and sing love songs!”
The revelling artists were communicating something so authentic, the contemporary approach to their ritual was something so unifying that the sceptical attitude of the public dissolved in the auditorium. The thing is, many audience members had seemed sceptical: even in countries like Cameroon people need to put aside prejudices against “unknown masked people”. In the very place where ritual costumes are actually part of the cultures, they are often viewed suspiciously these days. “Christianity drilled us out of our own rituals a long time ago,” says choreographer Trixie Munyama from her position by the stage. “These days, many of us suffer ourselves from the afrophobia introduced by the missionaries back in the day.”
 
So the main message coming from the artists’ stories is one of resilience. The unquestioning way with which they break down the masquerade stereotypes and reject any kind of categorisation.
 
Nowadays when faced with the choice between an unruly Afro and my “folksy headscarf” to cover my hair, I feel far more comfortable in my own skin than I did in the days when I went to the carnival dressed as a “Mexican lady”. You see, the way people view hair has changed too. Radical artist Laetitia Ky gets to the heart of the matter by letting her hair speak for itself. To put her political messages across she needs nothing more than some wire and her dreads, which she knots into artistic installations depending on the theme. Sometimes her hairstyle becomes a man peeping under a woman’s skirt in a contribution to the me-too debate, other times it’s a pistol as a statement against gun violence. Sometimes there are even little plaits growing out of her armpits in criticism of conventional beauty ideals.
 
But my favourite artwork is one that shows a thick lock of hair coming from her forehead to her neck, going around her face to depict the head of a lioness. The image of a ruthless shape-shifter who has no need of a dressing-up box.