“They got that from us” Brooklyn’s Semi-Cameo on Treme

I was recently alerted by Jenny and Shelley that our African collection got an unexpected shout out on a recent episode of Treme, HBO’s drama about post-Katrina New Orleans. Sure enough, in an episode entitled “What is New Orleans?” that premiered on June 19, the characters of Albert and Delmond Lambreaux were depicted visiting the Brooklyn Museum. However, as this The Times-Picayune reporter explains on NOLA.com, after an establishing shot of the Brooklyn Museum, the interior footage was actually of a well-known mask in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art.

NOMA Ngafui Mask

Ngafui Mask for the Poro Society. Unidentified Loma artist, 19th or early 20th century, Liberia or Guinea. Wood, cotton, feathers, monkey fur, leopard fur, cowrie shells, metal and seeds. New Orleans Museum of Art, Museum purchase: West Freeman Foundation Matching Fund, 72.140.

Series creator David Simon linked that scene in the “Brooklyn Museum” with a story associated with Tootie Montana (a New Orleans legend and “chief of the chiefs” among the city’s Mardi Gras Indians for many years) who once remarked upon seeing a similar mask in New York – “they got that from us.”

While the Ngafui mask in New Orleans is rare and stunning (and, indeed, has been written about my predecessor, William Siegmann, Curator Emeritus of African Art), I would be remiss in my role as cheerleader for all things African art not to point out the related, wonderful masks and other associated works at Brooklyn.

The mask above was used by the Poro society, an initiation society for men which is found in a variety of quite distinct West African societies, including the Loma. The work here that immediately comes to mind is a double-faced staff, likely used by a leader in a Loma Poro society. This work certainly shares in the spectacular crown of feathers to which Albert initially responded.

Double-Faced Staff for Poro Society.

Double-Faced Staff for Poro Society. Unidentified Loma artist, late 19th or early 20th century, Liberia. Wood, feathers, palm fiber. Gift of Blake Robinson, 1992.196.2. Black and white file photo, and recent storeroom detail shots.

Double-Faced Staff for Poro Society.

Double-Faced Staff for Poro Society. Unidentified Loma artist, late 19th or early 20th century, Liberia. Wood, feathers, palm fiber. Gift of Blake Robinson, 1992.196.2. Black and white file photo, and recent storeroom detail shots.

Double-Faced Staff for Poro Society.

Double-Faced Staff for Poro Society. Unidentified Loma artist, late 19th or early 20th century, Liberia. Wood, feathers, palm fiber. Gift of Blake Robinson, 1992.196.2. Black and white file photo, and recent storeroom detail shots.

Oracle Figure (Kafigeledjo)

Oracle Figure (Kafigeledjo). Unidentified Senufo artist, late 19th or early 20th century, Korhogo district, Côte d’Ivoire. Cloth, wood, glass beads, feathers. Gift of Fernandez Arman to the Jennie Simpson Educational Collection of African Art, 72.102.3.

A related work, by a Senufo artist, is an oracle figure known as a kafigeledjo. The feathers on this object, also restricted to a senior member of the Poro society among the Senufo, are part of a deliberate “anti-aesthetic,” meant to provoke intense anxiety in the viewer—which makes sense, as these were used to suss out lies and hidden misdeeds.

Perhaps the producers could consider a follow-up episode inside the building—Brooklyn certainly does seem to be on the radar of HBO’s production designers!