Toufic Beyhum’s emoji-inspired African masks series reflects upon the influence of the ever-growing digital communication that connects us


Toufic Beyhum’s latest photographic series, Amoji Masks, plays with emoji symbols, transforming them into larger-than-life African masks as a way to explode the clash between traditional and modern culture. The Lebanese-born photographer and creative director only started using emojis himself when he moved to Namibia two years ago and found that so much communication – both business and personal - was done via messaging apps. “I only became high tech when I moved to Africa and got a smart phone,” Beyhum says. The idea for the series came from an observation he made one morning in the local market that “Namibians are turning into robots. Everyone is looking at their phones all the time.”

Such a scene could be had all over the world and so he set about commissioning two young local artists to make a series of masks using found and recycled materials, which was a six month process. “I was very specific in terms of the material I wanted to use,” he adds. “Traditionally, African masks have been made using whatever was around: wood, shell, feathers, hair. We used glass, plastic, beads and shells. Wood is not so easy to find in Namibia as it’s a desert country.”

Armed with the masks, Beyhum subsequently drove around in his car, stopping strangers and asking them to choose whichever mask they were most attracted to for a photo. His models included school children, market stallholders and even a hitchhiker. He found that everyone recognised these increasingly ubiquitous emoji symbols. Often referred to as the hieroglyphics of today, the first language born in the digital age, emojis are used by everyone, everywhere. They transcend language and are a quick, albeit often ironic, way to communicate.

The power of this particular series comes from the paradoxical use of the masks. They exaggerate emotion in a comic way, sometimes at odds with the scene that surrounds it, and sometimes enhancing it. The face and emotion seems disconnected from the body it floats on. A girl stands on the beach with a crying face, even though “she and her family were laughing so much when I took that photo”. In another image, a man in uniform stands with the embarrassed emoji, which contradicts his position of authority. We’re left wondering not only who these subjects are but how they truly feel. What is the connection, if any, between the signifier and the signified?

The images that feature just the hand and arm gestures are based on the most popularly used emojis among a set of young people that Beyhum interviewed.  Among them are the power bicep, the Vulcan salute and the praying hands. These gestures take on a distinctly African twist with both their skin tones and the wax print fabrics behind them, an echo of many African studio portraitists, from the legendary Seydou Keïta through to contemporary artist, Hassan Hajjaj.

In combining Namibian materials with emojis, Beyhum has transformed the universal image of an emoji into one that is immediately recognisable as an African motif – at once remaining true to the defining characteristics of these small, digital icons; and staking a claim for Africa in the global narrative where technologies, cultures and generations collide. Just as African mask have always been invested with the power to communicate, transform and transfix, these new amojis express Africa’s outlook today.

Beyhum was born in Beirut and fled the Lebanese civil war in 1982, travelling to the UK with his family. He studied fine art, graphic design and advertising and worked in advertising in New York, London, Berlin, Dubai and now Windhoek, while also pursuing photography and filmmaking. Amoji Masks speak to some of Beyhum’s previous series that also touch on the theme of hidden identities. In Burqa, recently acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he created hunting falcon masks for humans, hiding their eyes, and in Thobes and Creps, he photographed only his subjects’ shoes.

Words Katie de Klee

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Published on 28/06/2018