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Great Dance

Heitage Gallery
July 17 - Oct. 2, 2011

Africa Past and Present Podcast Episode 56:

The Great Dance: Masks in Malawi


Africa Past and Present is a podcast about history, culture, and politics in Africa and the diaspora. The show highlights interesting and significant people, ideas, and discussions in African Studies from a wide range of disciplines and perspectives.

Image of Great Dance Exhibit
A "spiritual masquerade" is the subject of a new photo exhibition opening July 17 at the Michigan State University Museum.
"Great Dance" features striking images of the gule wamkulu (pronounced "goolay wumkooloo"), or "great dance," practiced by villagers throughout Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, in Africa. A gule wamkulu performance brings the community together in times of celebration and of mourning: masked and woven characters represent the ancestors of the people who have come back to the land of the living to instruct the community in proper behavior.
"There are many hundreds of different gule wamkulu characters. Each has its own carved mask and costume, or structure woven from grasses and bamboo, and each has its own message," explains MSU Museum Director Gary Morgan, who worked at the Kungoni Center of Culture and Art in Malawi for two years. Morgan loaned photographs for the exhibit, along with photographer Arjen van de Merwe who lives in Malawi. In the exhibit "Great Dance," more than 30 of the characters will be featured through the photographs and a number of real gule wamkulu masks.

"The masks themselves are beautiful objects of art, but more than that, they are a vibrant and vital part of community life. They come alive through the great dance and it serves to bring the community together," adds Morgan.

"Great Dance" is a companion to the MSU Museum's year-long special exhibition, "MASK: Secrets & Revelations."  "Great Dance" runs through Oct. 2 in the Heritage Gallery. "MASK," the Main Gallery exhibit, explores issues of spirituality, perceptions of self- identity, power and authority, human rites of passage, and the place of people in nature, as well as masks in sport and war, and in the popular media. The "MASK" exhibit includes approximately 250 masks from around the world, many on view for the first time. The exhibition is also the backdrop for a number of collaborations and programs, many drawing on MSU classes in poetry, visual communication, and interactive multimedia projects.


"Great Dance" is also part of an ongoing series of photographic exhibits at the MSU Museum, which complement the museum's collections. Photographs show cultures, traditions, war, poverty, labor, natural wonders or polluted landscapes -- subjects that often are too small to see by the naked eye or too vast to comprehend without the perspective of a skilled photographer. Photographic exhibitions allow the museum to develop campus-wide programming on issues and ideas and act as a catalyst for campus and community discussions.