A Contemporary Take on African Masks

The Brooklyn Museum is exploding with vibrant shows, on subjects from Africa to Coney Island.  In fact, there are two shows, each devoted to one of these distinct areas, side-by-side on the 5th floor.  They’re both powerful, and will leave you thinking a bit differently not only about these geographic locales, but also about life. This post will focus on Africa; the next one is about the Coney Island show.

Gelede Body Mask, artist unknown, Benin, 19th century

Gelede Body Mask, artist unknown, Benin, 19th century

Disguises – Masks and Global African Art  is a powerful display of masks, sculptures, photos, prints, and videos, mostly by African artists (or artists of African descent).  The exhibition is organized thematically, i.e. “Becoming Another,” “Masks as Disguise,” often placing historical masks in dialogue with contemporary artists, fostering an exploration of the different roles that masks play, and the possibilities they open up to their wearers. 

As the wall labels explain, masquerading is a catalyst for engagement with issues of a given time, whether sacred or secular; it’s also a platform for artistic creativity, allowing the wearer to make statements he/she otherwise could not.  Masks, in the form of iconographic characters express archetypes, and the wearer’s role is to teach a lesson.  However, masks live in a specific cultural context; when they  are separated from their costumes and from their wearers – as they are in museums – their larger messages are lost.  This exhibit explores these themes from historical and contemporary perspectives.

Frighten Children mask by Chuckwu Okora, Nigeria 1960

Frighten Children mask by Chuckwu Okora, Nigeria 1960

At the beginning of the show, you are greeted by a 19th century Gelede body mask, in the form of a woman, from  Benin, standing on a pedestal, slightly off the floor.  There are cases containing 19th and 20th century wooden masks from Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Benin: several very large, stylized human faces, and some have animal characteristics.  One of the standouts for me was a smaller, oval shaped yellow, brown, white and black “frighten children” mask by Chuckwu Okora, of Nigeria, who created it in 1960 as a theatre mask for an evil character, representing greed and social illness. 

In the next room are 4 large photos from the Oikonomos series by Angolan artist Edson Chagas, in which he covers his head with shopping bags from around the globe that are now found in Angola, creating a commentary on the consumer market that is now found there.    Close by is Woman #3 by Paul Anthony Smith, who used the 18th century technique of pictotage on photos of a Kuba mask and his mother, transforming them into a completely new mask with a jewel-like feel to it, evoking Asian theatre masks.  Across the room you’ll find Willie Cole’s work:  in the center is a photo of a scorched iron; on one side is is a photo of the artist with the same scorch marks superimposed on his face; on the other side is a woodcut depicting an iron as a mask. The palette of brown, white and black, as well as the motif of the iron serve to unify the pictures into a triptych.

Aluminum and brass (razor) wire mask by Walter Oltmann, South Africa

Aluminum and brass (razor) wire mask by Walter Oltmann, South Africa

In the next room, you’ll find several spectacular masks by the South African artist Walter Oltmann, made from aluminum and brass (razor) wire.  He’s also constructed several “suits” from these materials, but with the caterpillar and Kafka’s insect as their underlying inspiration, making you think about how we use clothing to separate ourselves from others, or to identify ourselves with a given group, or to transform ourselves.  As someone who had to wear a uniform for twelve years, his work spoke very powerfully to me.

Be sure to see the Egungun series of oversized photos by Leonce Rafael Agbodjélou of Benin, which are wonderful portraits of egungun performers in Porto Novo – the colors and patterns of their costumes are stunning, and are made more intriguing by the wearers’ faces being covered.  Also take a look at the oversize photos by Frenchman Jean-Claude Moschetti of masked figures in Benin – not only the two triptychs with the brightly colored, elaborate costumes, but also the solo photo of a person – whose face is also covered – wearing an all white costume decorated with cowrie shells, and set against a deep sky blue background.

In another area are 7 pieces by Nandipha Mntambo of South Africa; two oversize photos of the artist dresses as a bullfighter, in a white matador’s suit she made partly from cowhide.  There’s also a series inspired by the myth of Europa (who was seduced by Zeus disguised as a white bull) consisting of a photo in which the artist transformed herself into Europa as half bull, half woman – a fascinating hairy female face with horns; this same image is also rendered as a bronze bust.  You’ll also find two small, spare, pen & ink drawings of a bull, reminiscent of Picasso.

NeoPrimitivism by Brendan Fernandes, Kenya

NeoPrimitivism by Brendan Fernandes, Kenya

In another area you’ll find the Anomalia series by Brendan Fernandes of Kenya, his digital drawings of mythical, futuristic animals whose heads are African artifacts (masks) mounted on animal bodies.  In a separate installation, NeoPrimitivism he has put fake white masks on fake deer, who are standing next to masks made of neon, highlighting the loss of cultural context and spiritual meaning when “authentic” masks become commodities, sold on the street (as on Canal Street).

In the next room is a video installation, in which two Makonde masks from the early 20th century are place in dialogue with Jacob Dwight’s digital masks whose constantly changing images are projected on two screens.  The walls of the room are covered in black & white wallpaper created by Sam Vernon from images he xeroxed and altered as well as hand-drawn patterns.

detail from ChimaTek installation by Saya Woolfalk

detail from ChimaTek installation by Saya Woolfalk

In the center of the entire exhibit is a large installation ChimaTek which defies description.  Created by Saya Woolfalk, it has a very 1960’s psychedelic/futuristic feel.  This is the latest work in a series she’s created over several years, around female characters called “Empathics”   I recommend that you read the wall labels, then watch  the short video about how ChimaTek will allow you to transform yourself into a post-modern person through a process of hybridization that gives customers the opportunity to try on new hybrid identities.  Seemingly a combination of sci-fi fantasy and parody of medical advertising, it is simultaneously very funny and very scary – an ingenious installation that’s a sly commentary on how we chase happiness by changing ourselves.

There is so much to see here – I’ve left out lots of things such as, William Vilalongo who’s put African masks over reproductions of western nudes, and also placed works by Frank Stella and Alfred Jansen over Pende masks, creating masks on masks…  or Iké Udé’s “Sartorial Anarchy #23” in which he dresses in “post-dandy” style, wearing an embroidered Nigerian man’s gown, with a reproduction of a 16th-century ruff collar, and a French fencing mask from the 1940’s.. and other items that are detailed in a guide by the photo.

Sartorial Anarchy #23 by Iké Udé, Nigeria

Sartorial Anarchy #23 by Iké Udé, Nigeria

Leave yourself plenty of time to take in this exhibit; it’s not only that there’s a lot to see, but also understanding the layers of meaning  as contemporary artists struggle to reinvent the mask. (More images are on my Instagram feed) 

The exhibit runs through  September 18th.  However, I recommend that you go well before then, as you’ll probably want to see it again.

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