Legacy hosts first-ever Gule Wamkulu masked dance ceremony

Dr. Devi Mucina’s academic work and his familial connections to the communities and traditions of the Chewa peoples are central to Gule Wamkulu: Dancing Indigenous Governance. The exhibition features spirited photography and film by Kl. Peruzzo de Andrade, hand-crafted masks, Adinkra textiles, and an interactive bwalo, filled with brick-red sand. The heart of the exhibition is Gule Wamkulu, or “the great dance of life,” a unifying practice for Chewa communities. But what does it mean to bring Gule Wamkulu to Victoria?

Two masked dancers in motion

On January 28, Legacy celebrated the opening of the exhibition with an unprecedented custom—through an authentic Gule Wamkulu masked dance. With many in attendance, initiated mask carriers enveloped the space in embodied dialogues. Through each dance, mask carriers communed with the guests in attendance. Through each step, through each beat, Gule Wamkulu enabled guests to observe and reflect in its thematic offerings. 

Black and white photo of masked dancer in a robe

Masked dancer with blade

In accordance with traditional protocol, mask carriers were presented with tokens of gratitude in the form of loonies and toonies from the audience. These tokens were collected as a gift to the Amais (Aunties), the knowledge holders and community caretakers who hosted Mucina and Peruzzo during their visit. Everyone, from children to Elders, participated in the experience of affirming shouts and claps, each acknowledging the powerful act of coming together.

Masked dancer on their knees

The occasion was opened by Songhees Nation Elder Skip Dick, who welcomed gallery visitors and mask carriers to the territory. Both the exhibition and the ceremony work to develop reciprocity and accountability to Coast Salish communities through respectful relations. These relationships are of profound significance for Mucina, whose journey to reconnect with Gule Wamkulu was inspired by his experience of bearing witness to Coast Salish masked dance.

Masked dancer in motion

Masked dancer with arms outstretched

Mucina and Peruzzo openly spoke to the crowd of beaming visitors of their respective journeys to create the exhibition; their families, friends, and communities coming to support them full heartedly in a packed gallery. Barbara Hudlin, Director of the BC Black History Awareness Society spoke about the continual significance of Black communities in Victoria, while Mandeep and Kumalo Mucina, Devi’s partner and his son, provided visitors with guidance for how to engage with the mask carriers. Artist-director Simone Blais graciously led a discussion after the ceremony to give space for visitors to share what they witnessed in a supportive, explorative space. Many visitors noted the symbolic significance of sharing cultural inheritances. Others spoke of the powerful connection they felt to the movement and emotions of the dances—a kind of blood memory that is inherently understood.

Young man holding a shaker

Masked dancer in motion

In addition to celebrating the opening of Gule Wamkulu, Legacy also recognized the Sidewalk Exhibition, Dance Like Everybody’s Watching. Directed by Simone Blais, the documentary analyzes the experiences of the local Black dance communities in Victoria. While unpacking the issues of tokenism, racism, and stereotyping, Blais’ work also champions and uplifts the creativity and skill of the dancers. The film features camerawork by Peruzzo, an interview with Devi Mucina, and artist Kemi Craig. Frozen Cradle, an original dance piece by Lee Ingram, was also performed to begin the evening’s festivities.

Black and white photo of dancer with hands raised

This event marked the first time a Gule Wamkulu was performed in Victoria—an important outcome of mobilizing UVic’s Legacy Art Gallery as an open community space. While the exhibition, running until April 8, 2023, offers visitors the shared teachings of Gule Wamkulu, the ceremony was an important step in acting through teachings. Most importantly, it creates a tangible connection between all who choose to participate in its wonder. 

Article: Teresa Sammut
Images: Josh Ngenda