Meeting of Traditional African Masks with Contemporary art syncretism

Disguise: Masks and Global African Art.

At the Brooklyn Museum, through September 18, 2016.

Disguise, organized by the Seattle Art Museum, reverberates well in Brooklyn, which boasts ever-expanding networks of transplanted African, as well as American-born and other artists of African descent, including several here.  And that’s a delimitation–that is, all artists included are of African descent, some born and working in Africa, others not, on both counts, or some combination.  So then “global African art” (of the exhibition title) is a provocative umbrella in more ways than one, especially in some cases.  In addition, BM boasts a major collection of and commitment to traditional African art, culled from to contextualize the featured contemporary work.

In general, Western art audiences are a long way from MoMA’s infamous Primitivism (1984) when it comes to African art and aesthetics.  A rising tide of African Diaspora arts in the West that, increasingly, has “looked both ways” within the scope of a growing global contemporary scene, offers firm foundation for the fluid curatorial approach here.*  In New York, a small-scale recent precedent was The Met’s 2011 exhibition, Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three ContinentsWillie Cole, featured there, appears with a single work in Disguise, which was narrowed to focus on ten contemporary artists, supplemented with additions from another dozen (approximately) to suggest an expansive field of possibilities.

There is, throughout, a fundamental blurring of masking and disguise, as well as stated sub-themes that stem from the concept of “becoming.”  Yet, ambiguity between the gathered notions seems apropos, when so much of past African masking traditions have been lost and their continuing evolution is infinitely complex.

Virtually all of the contemporary works are complex and engaging; and the traditional works are interspersed effectively.  For example, a Yoruba pieced-textile egungun masquerade costume (Nigeria) and a Gola carved helmet mask and raffia ensemble (Liberia) are in proximity of a  signature Nick Cave “soundsuit” and a costume-sculpture used in performance by Alejandro Guzman. Cave’s decades-long oeuvre, which includes performance-geared costume-works as well as mannequin-sculptures implying motion and sound such as the one here that sprouted a faux-botanical armature, has evoked the legacy of African masquerade from the start, although not directly; whereas Guzman’s towering, multi-horn-headed construction of natural, industrial, and found African-crafted elements does.  Just running through a few, to give an idea of the visual energy:

Walter Oltmann‘s hobbit-sized, shiny steel “warriors” have a  polished (I want to say “decorative”) manufacture from a distance; however, their real razor and barbed wire edges quickly turn them subversive.  Two documentary photographers, Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou and Jean-Claude Moschetti, contribute gorgeous prints of ritual-ready, traditional egungun maskers, known for costumes (i.e., “masks”) with complete body coverage.  Zino Saro-Wiwa provides unusually intimate photographic glimpses, particularly as a woman photographer, of a relatively recently established, kind of rogue masking society (an offshoot within the Ogboni) and an engrossing triptych video that challenges the overwhelmingly male gendering of traditional masquerade in a moving performance of a private mourning cycle.  Wura-Natasha Ogunji directs female masqueraders in post-industrial hazmat-like apparel through the streets of Lagos, documented in cellphone videos.  Saya Woolfalk fills a darkened gallery with psychedelic video-loop-and-light-based installations that evoke futuristic female fantasies of serene beauty inspired by Mende helmet masks, exceptional for their use by female societies.  Compatriot futurist, Jacolby Satterwhite is represented with characteristic DIY sci-fi videos and a foray into digital painting.  Interspecies origin myths and masking are conjoined in Nandipha Mntambo‘s striking photographic self-portrait with bovine ears and horns, also translated into a bronze bust, recalling the animal-headed humanoids of her teacher, Jane Alexander, as well as the prosthetic-enhanced creatures of Matthew Barney.  A series of digital ink drawings by Brendan Fernandes also imagines cross-breeds—of animals and masks.  Loved his obvious but effective African mask-shaped, blinking neon signs, partly inspired by a stint in NYC’s Chinatown; Jakob Dwight‘s  mask-morphing, digital abstractions on monitors are a higher-tech version.  Repros of African masks and figure paintings by Western “masters” are collaged by William Villalongo to conjure post-colonial takes on Dada and Surrealist precedents.  Paul Anthony Smith amps up the latter in his photographic portrait of a Kuba-masked sitter embellished with “pricked” passages on the surface that appear simultaneously twinkling and furry.  Edson Chagas, who received wide exposure in New York in Ocean of Images, the New Photography  at the Museum of Modern Art (2015) is represented with a series of photo-portraits of a white-collar (literally) “manager” (loosely translated from the Greek series title, Oikonomos) with various mass-produced shopping and travel bags over his head.

The exhibition’s blend of vibrancy, erudition, and hodgepodge is compelling and will surely be of as much interest in retrospect (through the slim  catalogue emphasizing artists’ statements), as it is in capturing a moment in the evolution of art related to African cultural origins through time and around the world.

***

*I’m thinking, of the exhibition/catalogue, Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora, ed. Laurie Ann Farrell; 2003.

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