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Research and Academic Explore

Adorned Epé Ekpé festival dancer at rest, Aného, Togo, 2015. Photo: Elyan Jeanine Hill.

CLARK LECTURE

DANCING ALTARS: EMBODIED VISUALITIES IN TOGOLESE SACRED ARTS

Elyan Jeanine Hill (Southern Methodist University)

Through layered visual displays, Ewe people in Togo map histories of cultural exchange with Indian merchants and African Muslims onto contemporary social relations. Some communities perform memories of trade with Indian merchants through festival arts that embody Hindu chromolithograph images as depictions of local water spirits. Practitioners also produce living histories of domestic slavery during vivid rituals honoring a family of slave spirits called Mama Tchamba. Since they remember their enslaved ancestors as practicing Muslims captured in northern Togo, practitioners exaggerate Muslim aesthetics as they dance adorned with fez hats and sequined scarves imported from “the North.” Festooned with meaningful layers of beads and bracelets, dancers march across open-air home courtyards and festival grounds to connect themselves to histories of trade and forced migration. Bringing dance studies into conversation with African and African Diaspora art history, this talk frames the “body as altar,” a living archive of accumulated objects and adornments. These lavish embodiments illustrate the interplay of the performers’ identities with the lives of sacred objects and the images through which Togolese communities fashion transoceanic and interethnic dialogues. 

Lecture video will remain available until December 31, 2021.

Elyan Jeanine Hill holds a Ph.D. in the World Arts and Cultures/Dance Department at UCLA. Her research interests include histories of slavery, collective memory, visual culture, and performance in Ghana, Togo, Benin, Liberia, and their diasporas. Specifically, her research examines festival and ritual dance performances by artists in both Ghana and Togo as dynamic forms of history-keeping, problem-solving, and traditional education for young women. She examines devotional practices for the spirits of enslaved persons called Mama Tchamba and for Mami Wata—a group of pan African water spirits often depicted as mermaids. Her research and fieldwork have been supported by the Ralph C. Altman Fellowship from the Fowler Museum, a West African Research Association Predoctoral Fellowship, and an International Institute Fieldwork Fellowship.