I think we all have a dark, animalistic part of ourselves.
— Nandipha Mntambo
In explaining this work, Nandipha Mntambo notes that “Europa came from an interest in Greek mythology and wanting to look directly at the combination of a half-bull and a half-human woman.” In the Greek myth, “Europa, the daughter of Phoenix, is seduced by Zeus, who hides in the form of a white bull—an ultimate disguise. She had three sons by Zeus who all became rulers. That led to her being the queen of what we imagine Europe to be. She also reminds me about confronting parts of myself that I don’t like, or the human and animal in myself.”
In this digitally altered self-portrait, Mnatambo invites us to follow her lead and search for the not-quite-human in ourselves.
My clothes and accessories are precisely akin to a painter’s palette, and my body, akin to the canvas.
— Iké Udé
Iké Udé’s work plays with categories, crossing and transgressing boundaries. As much a performance artist as a photographer, Udé stages elaborately conceived self-portraits. With a keen eye on the world of high fashion, he draws on clothes and accessories from around the globe to create a style he labels “post-dandyism,” reviving a nineteenth-century term for men dedicated to precise and theatrical self-fashioning. In so doing, he both celebrates and demands the freedom available to an artist who moves in circles of global glamour that stretch from Lagos to Los Angeles.
“Each of my projects builds on the last,” says Saya Woolfalk. “[Earlier] I worked with the anthropologist Rachel Lears to develop an Ethnography of No Place, a video about a fictional No Place [utopia, or “no-place,” in Greek], a future constructed for the investigation of human possibilities and impossibilities. It features configurations of biology, sociality, race, class, and sexuality.”
From there, Woolfalk developed “a science fiction–inspired project about a fictional group of women called Empathics, to explore the process of hybridization.” Carefully documenting their origins, characteristics, and intentions, she built a rich symbolic world that is, itself, an artistic exploration of the ways in which institutions similarly classify and divide actual people.
“In No Place,” Wolfalk says, “people are part plant and part human. They change colors at different points of their life cycle. When they die they become the landscape. They’re always in flux and changing. It’s a macrocosmic project that I think of like a folk story. . . . The Empathics are a group of women who try to conjure No Place into the present through a series of ritual actions, activities, and research. [Within this world,] the Institute of Empathy operates as a nonprofit that I employ to undermine stable conceptions of identity and examine how hybrid identities emerge through different kinds of biological and cultural contact.”
It happens that I think about a story. Then I start thinking about its realization, the character, how it is dressed, the setting, and then at the end I create my artwork.
— Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou
Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou’s work is documentary in nature but has a conceptual edge. While decidedly contemporary, his depiction of egungun performers in Porto-Novo could easily be read as belonging to an unaltered and timeless tradition, particularly given his decision to stage these images against stark mud-brick walls. Indeed, in an earlier period, these sorts of typological, documentary images of masquerade characters might have been made by a white, colonial, or missionary official.
In this instance, however, the image comes from Benin’s most globally celebrated photographer—one with a canny understanding of both the spiritual import of egungun and the ways in which such images are consumed and read in settings outside of Benin.
African masks became the notoriously mute “muses” for the work of many European modernist painters in the early twentieth century. In Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, for example, several of the nude women in the center of the painting stare at the viewer through forms that resemble certain types of West and Central African masks.
Here, William Villalongo reverses that European modernist gesture of appropriation, placing actual masks from Gabon over images of nude women by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (right) and Mel Ramos (left). That the Ramos image itself comes from an auction catalogue only further reinforces the extent to which all—the mask, the Ramos painting, and possibly the woman herself—have been transformed into commodities.
Animal anatomy seems to explode off this face. If you look carefully, there are tiny round eyeholes that show the core of the explosion is human. Such a mask was worn only by an auspicious judge who arrived when social tensions were erupting. Visually armed, this mask reminded people that they should not model themselves after the untamed creatures of the forest, which use their horns and teeth to attack each other. Instead, gela came to absorb such beastly instincts and return that fierce energy to the forest, where it belonged.
I watched vendors [on Canal Street] selling African masks and heard they were carving them in storage units outside the city. It made me think about the loss of cultural traditions—what happened to the ceremonial purpose and what the masks once meant—and how the masks become just placeholders, like signs. The neons also play with disguised language, as they pulse questions about who they are in Morse code. . . . Those sorts of signals are not being articulated or comprehended, but the light acts as a beacon to then call in.
— Brendan Fernandes
Modeling these neon signs after actual historic masks in museum collections, Fernandes plays with masks as icons, as signifiers for a supposedly authentic “Africa” that are nevertheless divorced from their original context. They seem to be selling something. Is it the mask itself? Or an idea?
Gbetu is a men’s masquerade performed primarily for secular entertainment. While a genre owned and performed by men, gbetu is considered to be feminine, as she is seen to “give birth” to small dancing figures that appear to emerge from beneath her raffia skirt, perform, and then return to her folds.
Each mask is owned, controlled, and performed by a specific household (known as a gbonji), and is accompanied by its own proprietary music and choreography. Gbetu dances in a highly energetic, acrobatic manner, advancing in broad swishing motions, making full use of the head-to-toe raffia covering.
Since the early 1990s, Nick Cave has been fabricating inventive sculptures out of scavenged materials, which he often overlays with beadwork, stitching, and other embellishments. One of the first, crafted from twigs, was made to be worn and created a rustling sound, which led to the eventual name of such works: Soundsuits. Cave’s costumes draw from a variety of sources, including both African and Caribbean traditions of masquerade.
In performance, Cave’s work invokes moments of whimsical transcendence—but a very real, grounded, and nuanced understanding of the racialized nature of American society is often just underneath. Overcoming the distinctions between “fine art” and “craft,” as well as “performance” and “street” art, Cave’s Soundsuits may also serve as a sort of armor, protecting against the violence of racial stereotypes and giving their wearers an outsize, fanciful, and transcendent presence. Cave designed his first Soundsuit in response to the brutal police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1992.
Cave’s costumes enable performers to be seen free
from the constraints of being placed in categories, and to be free to transform their environment into an otherworldly space.
Disguise: Masks and Global African Art
April 29–September 18, 2016
Disguise: Masks and Global African Art connects the work of twenty-five contemporary artists with historical African masquerade, using play and provocation to invite viewers to think critically about their world and their place within it. By putting on a mask and becoming someone else, artists reveal hidden realities about society, including those of power, class, and gender, to suggest possibilities for the future.
The contemporary artists featured include Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou (Benin), Nick Cave (U.S.), Edson Chagas (Angola), Steven Cohen (South Africa/France), Willie Cole (U.S.), Jakob Dwight (U.S.), Hasan and Husain Essop (South Africa), Brendan Fernandes (Kenya/Canada/U.S.), Alejandro Guzman (Puerto Rico), Gerald Machona (Zimbabwe), Nandipha Mntambo (South Africa), Jean-Claude Moschetti (France/Benin), Toyin Ojih Odutola (U.S.), Emeka Ogboh (Nigeria), Wura-Natasha Ogunji (U.S./Nigeria), Walter Oltmann (South Africa), Sondra R. Perry (U.S.), Jacolby Satterwhite (U.S.), Paul Anthony Smith (Jamaica/U.S.), Adejoke Tugbiyele (U.S./Nigeria), Iké Udé (U.S./Nigeria), Sam Vernon (U.S.), William Villalongo (U.S.), Zina Saro-Wiwa (U.S./U.K./Nigeria), and Saya Woolfalk (U.S.).
Masks have long been used by African artists to define relationships―between individuals, communities, the environment, or the cosmos―and, sometimes, to challenge the status quo. However, once masks were removed from their original performance context, they were transformed into museum objects, and their larger messages were often lost.
The exhibition presents contemporary work in dialogue with historical objects from the collections of the Seattle Art Museum and the Brooklyn Museum within an immersive and lively installation of video, digital, sound, and installation art, as well as photography and sculpture.
Disguise: Masks and Global African Art was originally organized by the Seattle Art Museum. The Brooklyn presentation is organized by Kevin Dumouchelle, Associate Curator, Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands, Brooklyn Museum.