Touring exhibition Disguise:
Masks and Global African Art creates a 21st century masquerade


Ever since Pablo Picasso’s ‘African moment’ in 1907, masks from the continent have come to symbolise African art in the West despite the colonial disconnect from their origins and meanings. Whether concealed in gallery cabinets or hung on restaurant walls, they retain their often unsettling yet always mesmerising appeal and continue to inspire today. Earlier this year the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) looked at its own vast collection of masks in a new light with the exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art. Through the works of contemporary African and diaspora artists the show celebrates the evolution of the mask and masquerade in today’s internationalised art world.

“While masks were exported in vast quantities to become a signature art form representing the African continent in the 20th century, masquerades were left behind,” says Pamela McClusky, SAM curator of African and Oceanic Art. “Disguise attempts to bridge the gap between the mask observed in isolation and the masquerade experienced as a catalyst.” The show investigates how artists are working through the historical contexts of these artefacts and their traditions, while exploring issues the continent faces now.

"Throughout the exhibition genres are blurred, which forces audiences to shift their attentions back and forth between multiple narratives and ways of storytelling,” says Erika Dalya Massaquoi, consultant curator for the exhibition. “These alternating perspectives raise a lot of questions for spectators: What is being told? How is it being told? From whose perspective? Museum goers are challenged to query their frames of reference.”

Significant contributions come from Jakob Dwight, Brendan Fernandes, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Toyin Odutola, Nandipha Mntambo, Emeka Ogboh, Walter Oltmann, Sondra R. Perry, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Jacolby Satterwhite, Sam Vernon, Jean-Claude Moschetti, William Villalongo, Iké Udé, Edson Chagas, Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, Nick Cave and Saya Woolfalk. In their hands, the mask variously shape shifts into a camouflage, soundtrack, intervention, landscape, performance and act of divination negotiating the cross-cultural notions of disguise today. Experienced together, the immersive exhibition creates its own unique Afro-futurist masquerade.

Disguise is now on a yearlong tour, currently at the Fowler Museum at UCLA and then onto the Brooklyn Museum. Here three artists share their interpretation of the mask with Nataal:

Jacob Dwight

Jacob Dwight

Jakob Dwight is a painter, media and light artist based in NYC. For his Autonomous Prism series he took a mask from the SAM’s archive and created a digital installation.

“Influenced by the ideas of writers Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, and by mathematician Ron Eglash’s research into African fractals, The Autonomous Prism comprises 16 digital videos both projected and shown on monitors. It derived from a video glitch artefact I found during a residency in Berlin in 2010. I used this abstract data stream as the foundation for a kind of mask form generator that has yielded hundreds of thousands of unique (and nearly-unique) images thus far. The work is a procession of beings and spirits that are made or become material to serve a task, to bring something or to reveal or to heal, and then they disappear. In masquerades these beings establish a space of juxtaposition and simultaneity, poesy and analysis, collision and reconciliation for communities. I look at the masks as a flood of electric avatars on sojourn in our dimension, silently symboling through a mathematical and prismatic language messages for us to one day decode.”

Brendan Fernandes

Brendan Fernandes

Brendan Fernandes was born in Nairobi and lives between Brooklyn and Toronto.The multi-media artist’s piece Neo Primitivism 2 conjures up a herd of masked deer.

“My contributions include neon, sculpture, drawing, film and live dance and deal with ideas of authenticity and hybridity while also paying respect to the post colonial histories that have affected this continent. I use the mask as an analogy for my own identity and trajectory of migration as a Kenyan, Indian and Canadian. My cultural background has confronted me with the transitional nature of identity. In sum, my work explores the thesis that identity is not static but enacted. This challenges accepted ways of thinking about what it is to have an ‘authentic’ self. I use ‘African’ objects to question authenticity via comparisons between the artefact and the souvenir, where the notion of provenance as a history of ownership is brought into view. These objects are in flux and continue to bring awareness to socio-political questions regarding neo-colonialism and identity today. In my most recent work I am returning to my past life as a dancer. I aim to highlight the various meanings that the body encapsulates and have been looking at the lost choreographies that these masks once enacted. But in their removal from their place of origin they are stilled and left static in the space of the museum.”

Wura-Natasha Ogunji

Wura-Natasha Ogunji

Wura-Natasha Ogunji works with performance, paper and video and is based between Austin and Lagos. She presents the video and costume project An Ancestor Takes a Photograph.

“I have always been interested in the way masks and masquerades create alternative and transcendent spaces. The mask is a portal. It tells both audience and performer, ‘You're about to enter a totally new world.’ The masquerade allows for the crossing of various boundaries within society. Some things can only be communicated in that particular space of ritual. The masks in my performance serve a similar function. The physicality of covering one's head, face or eyes also creates a kind of tension or sensory deprivation that further emphasises the power of this altered state.

An Ancestor Takes a Photograph reconfigures the Egungun ceremony as a performance for two women to move through the megacity of Lagos and document their experience of this street masquerade. This work builds upon the practices of 'street Egungun' who cleverly expand the traditional Yoruba ritual for economic reasons. While the street Egungun are more tricksters than ancestors (they tease and annoy and ask for money) they also inspire a sense of awe, fear and attraction similar to that instilled by the proper Egungun. An Ancestor Takes a Photograph is both an interruption to the gender prohibitions around who can dance Egungun - as women are not allowed to be part of the secret society - and a way to examine and embody the power of masquerade and the social and physical space that such costuming, disguise and movement creates. During the performance our costumes are outfitted with cameras so that as we move through the city we are recording this expanded sense of power and spatial freedom.”

Disguise: Masks and Global African Art is at the Fowler Museum at UCLA until 13 March 2016 and then travels to Brooklyn Museum from 22 April to 11 September

Words Helen Jennings

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