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Photo by Nii Kotei.

Ghana's Winneba Fancy Dress Festival Is a Living Museum

This photo story shows the annual celebration of sheer ingenuity and living history.

Where would you see Mortal Kombat characters, Black Jesus, Donald Trump, members of a royal wedding party and cowboys wielding Supreme cash guns in one place at the same time? At the start of the year in Winneba, a town in the central region of Ghana, these characters and more draped the coastal town in iridescent color for the Winneba Fancy Dress Festival.

The annual masquerade festival is a celebration of sheer ingenuity and living history. The tradition of masquerading emerged from contact with Dutch colonizers who introduced putting on masks and wearing fanciful attires to socialize in many coastal towns in Ghana. The people of Winneba adopted and owned this practice by setting up various masquerade troupes—as far back as the 1930s—to create elaborate characters and perform with marching bands for their townsfolk. In 1957, the institution was formalized by Ghana's first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, who sponsored the first parade to mark Ghana's independence. The 60th edition of the festival was spread over an entire week and comprises, exhibitions, panel discussion, tours, various marching floats, all of which culminated into the final parade on new year's day where the four troupes competed for a trophy.


This fervent competition fuels the creativity that holds the festival together as the entire town is split along these troupe lines, with each one attempting to outwit the other with the most bizarre and riveting costumes, stunts, songs and dances. The masquerades borrow heavily from colonial culture by dressing up as some institutions of colonial power from police, cowboys, pastors to garden parties, and other figures that were prominent in that era. There is a deliberate attempt to completely embody this eurocentric appearance, such that every layer of exposed skin is cover with white fabric with straighten hair wigs for both men and women. However, costumes are not limited by colonial history and many reference several personalities from pop culture such as Lebron James and Trump. One particular group paid homage to Ebony, a Ghanaian woman and musician, whose meteoric rise has caused a rethinking of roles women play in the local music scene.

The costumes are engineered to provoke visceral reactions, be it fear, anxiety, or laughter through the exaggerate features. Traditionally, the festival was reserved for men, which meant that a number of them engaged in cross dressing, which is seen as taboo in most Ghanaian community, in order to accurately depict women characters. Today, women are allowed to participate in the festival, yet most of the male participants still put on wigs, earrings, frocks and gowns to become women.

The festival stands out from most masquerade festival on the continent not just because of the long and intriguing history that binds it, but primary due to its constantly evolving visual culture. Participants do not limit their imagination to the tradition that birthed their beloved festival, but look to themselves and their socio-political conditions that permeate society for inspiration for their costumes. As such each year, there will be something new that not only captivates the audience but also doubles as a subtle metaphor for whatever sentiments that dominated the narrative from the past year. The redesigning of predominant images by the masquerades weaponizes their performances to become a tool for imaginative thinking. In a way, the festival is a living museum—it reminds us of the past as well as catalyzing conversation on the conditions of the present.

Click through the slideshow below:

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This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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