‘With a stupid mask he can barely recognize himself', the slam poet in Anja Göbel's film, DO THE MASKS DIE HERE, TOO? says with fervour. The poet's lines, and a voice-over that is thinly reminiscent of T.S Eliot's ‘Time present and time past', are leitmotifs running through the 34-minute documentary on the ecosystem of the museum culture in Burkina Faso.
At the heart of the film is a local- and continent-wide paradox. The film documents a conflict between government authorities who chose to site a museum in Dassasgo Village. In 1984, late former president Thomas Sankara started an urbanisation drive. The Dassasgo people were compensated and relocated from their ancestral land. On their land arose a large museum-the Musee National-which curates and preserves sacred objects of the sixty-three ethnic nationalities of Burkina Faso.
The walls of the chief's court and the sacred objects of the Dassasgo gave way to the museum. Did the Dassasgo lose their heritage for a museum whose purpose it is to preserve it?
To paraphrase one of the members of the court: The museum has its sacred objects, we have ours too. Museum people can neither value our objects nor know how to care for them like we do.
The curator of the National Museum agrees that a mask is more alive when it's sacred. Before the objects are collected, they undergo a process of demystification before they can be stored in a museum. So the government is considering reintegrating the Dassasgo, chief's court and all, back into the grounds of the museum. But how practicable or desirable is it?
The film also speaks to a continent-wide malaise: How much work has been done in Nigeria, Ghana, or Cameroon to preserve scared objects or art? How are they collected and preserved? Isn't there something odd about a museum culture in Africa that collects deities and stacks them in cupboards or showcases them in glasses?
The illegal trade in antique and cultural artefacts underscores a need for museums, and Göbel's film highlights this effectively. But the ‘how' is important, and the point is made: We have to handle our ancestral masks in a way that ensures future generations recognise themselves and their past in these objects.
by Ettobe David Meres