African masks have had a long and profound effect on Western modern and contemporary art. In 1907, Pablo Picasso encountered an African mask for the first time at the Palais du Trocadéro, which subsequently set off his three year-long African period. The result? Proto-cubist paintings like Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon and Head of a Sleeping Woman (Study for Nude with Drapery), two of his most famous. In the many movements since, the African mask has appeared widely in Western art as a fragment that typifies ceremonial masquerade. In the recently opened Brooklyn Museum exhibition, Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, 25 contemporary artists attempt to bridge the gap between mask and masquerade by both historically contextualizing and re-imagining the role of the African mask and masquerade today.
“African masks as we have come to know them and expect to see them in Western context are really just a fragment of a lost performance of works that were once contemporary but are now frozen in time,” explains exhibition curator, Kevin Dumouchelle, to The Creators Project. “The contemporary artists are able to set in and reanimated the mask through their practice.”
"The central metaphor of the show is becoming," the curator explains. "There's paradoxes in masquerade where, by disguising your own identity and taking on a new identity, you can speak to a truth that might not be accessible in everyday life, and, in fact, change the world in that way."
The exhibition is organized thematically across seven broad categories that the artists use to address the masquerade. These include: Becoming Artifacts, Becoming Another Body, Becoming Controlled, Becoming Another, Becoming Again, Becoming Political, and Becoming New. “At the beginning of the show, we set up a small installation of four works from our collection, establishing each of the themes, and then we reprieved those themes in greater depth with the contemporary works going forward,” explains Dumouchelle. The themes speak to the complicated history of the African mask in Western art, yet they also re-establish the agency and creativity of the African mask and its performance.
Dumouchelle describes the “Becoming Another Body,” gallery as containing masks “that allow you to become a non-human or hybrid being in order for you to speak to a universal truth.” The American artist Nick Cave’s Soundsuit is on display here. It is a 2008 take on a masquerade costume, complete with a mask comprised of flowers. Cave was drawn to masquerade as a form of political and mythical protection of the black male body, after seeing Rodney King's 1991 police beating on TV. Surrounding Cave’s Soundsuit are a series of photographs by the Angolan artist Edson Chagas entitled, OIKONOMOS. The photos are of a man in a white shirt wearing masks made from bags. One features President Obama’s face. In another section of the exhibition, the Canadian-Kenyan artist Brendan Fernandes’ neon sign masks series, From Hiz Hands, illuminate the gallery.
The show also exhibits masks in performance. In the American artist Jacolby Satterwhite’s video, Country Ball, the artist turns a home video of an early ‘90s family reunion into a CGI animated digital masquerade. The British-Nigerian artist Zina Saro-Wiwa’s The invisible Man: The Weight of Absence is also a video performance work that explores what the artist terms on her website, “a world between the face and the mask.” Saro-Wiwa’s performance raises questions about the gender dynamics surrounding masquerade culture in Nigeria. The video also serves as institutional critique of the ways in which African masks are, according to the artist, “displayed and brought to life” inside the museum. Several of the historical masks on display alongside the contemporary works in the museum are attributed to unknown artists from various regions of Africa. One fiber and wood mask on view is present with little context, by an “Unknown Ogoni Artist.” To Saro-Wiwa’s point, in presenting nameless masks, the museum displays an incomplete history of the culture and of the artists who helped craft it.
"I want the audience to really understand African Masquerade as this front of incredible creativity,” says Dumouchelle. “It is a dynamic and exciting artistic platform that changes every time it's performed and is a part of a rich longstanding tradition of artists engaging with and trying to change the world.” He adds, “Leaving this show, I hope that our visitors are able to look a little more critically at both contemporary and historical art."
Disguise: Masks and Global African Art continues through September 18 at the Brooklyn Museum. For more information, click here.