Fowler in Focus: Joli! A Fancy Masquerade from Sierra Leone

December 11, 2016–July 16, 2017

This exhibition features a rare group of 11 headdresses worn in Joli masquerades held in Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown in the 1970s. Joli headdresses are among the most unusual, complex, and elaborate masquerade configurations we know from sub-Saharan Africa, and they reflect the blending of cultural influences and peoples in the dynamic port city of Freetown.  The headdresses in this exhibition were performed to mark the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan. Crafted by Joli Society members, each headdress started with an elaborate armature made of bent and twisted wire, which was padded with polyurethane foam and then covered with textiles, brocades, velvets, netting, Christmas tinsel, fringe, lace, and mirrors to create a “fancy” superstructure in a recognizable shape, such as a mosque, an elephant, a biplane, or the water spirit Mami Wata, as here (right image above). Lastly, a painted wooden face mask or several face masks were attached to the structure, which was worn on top of the head of the fully dressed performer. The exhibition explains the history of Joli and the various threads of influence that led to this fantastic urban masquerade popular for only a brief period in the 1970s.

Organized by Gassia Armenian, Curatorial and Research Associate, Fowler Museum at UCLA

Selected Works:

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3D Interactive:


During the course of exhibition planning, the Fowler Museum partnered with the UCLA Radiology Department to examine one of the Joli headdresses using a CT scan. A CT (computed tomography) scan makes use of many X-ray images taken from different angles to produce cross-sectional (tomographic) images or virtual “slices” of a scanned object, allowing the user to see inside the object without cutting. The resulting image allows the viewers to discern the variety of wire gauges used and the intricate artistry of the bent-wire armature supporting the headdress (pictured above, with a yellow face). Visitors will be able see the results of using this technology displayed on a monitor in the exhibition.