A New Brooklyn Museum Exhibit Explores the Transformative Power of African Masquerade


Midway through “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art,” a compelling group exhibit on display at the Brooklyn Museum, visitors enter an installation by Saya Woolfalk that feels like a temple in a science fiction movie. Tall costumed sculptures in ritual stances and morphing faces on video screens depict a futuristic world in which people can access a “chimeric virtual existence” beyond their assigned identities.

At the edge of the installation, in a glass case, lurk two carved-wood Mende masks from Sierra Leone. Drawn from the museum’s collection, the masks date to the early twentieth century — but they feel ancient. The juxtaposition with Woolfalk’s futuristic scene is deliberate and gets to the core of “Disguise,” in which contemporary artists draw on the transformative power of African masquerade and apply it to current and speculative settings.

The show upends classic museum practice. “We’re used to seeing masks as beautiful sculptures in vitrines,” Kevin Dumouchelle, the museum’s associate curator for the arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands, tells the Voice. “We lose the sense that these were part of a performance. The masquerade involves costume, music, audience, dance.” Indeed, while the first sight that greets the visitor is a room of traditional masks presented according to the typical approach, the rest of the show overturns exactly that.

It’s also a fascinating way to showcase the work of twenty-five artists, ten of whom made new work for the show’s first iteration, at the Seattle Art Museum last year. The expanded Brooklyn version adds relevant contemporary work (a Nick Cave soundsuit, a Willie Cole triptych) and intersperses masks from the permanent collection, establishing a through-line between them and the new pieces.

In many African and diaspora cultures, masquerade is a living practice deployed for all manner of occasions, such as festivals, rites of passage, or the settling of disputes. Just as varied are the masks themselves: not just face-covers but head-to-toe outfits — made of wood, leaves, hides, raffia, textiles of all kinds, plastic, found objects — that transform the wearer. And, while masquerade tends to be a male domain, there are exceptions: The Mende masks near Woolfalk’s piece, for instance, come from a women’s secret society, the Sande. (They are echoed in the artist’s speculative universe, in which agents of transformation are female characters she calls the Empathics.)

One particular form of masquerade, the masked egungun figures of Yoruba culture, appears in a series of pieces grouped in one area of the show. These include full-size neotraditional costumed figures seated on chairs, created in recent years but by unknown makers; digital prints by Beninese photographer Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou; and multimedia work by Nigerian-American artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji. In An Ancestor Takes a Photograph, Ogunji sends two futuristic egungun in Tyvek suits into central Lagos, where the performers — both women, subverting roles traditionally assumed by men — film each other and what they see. Projected side by side, with the suits themselves exhibited near the screen, the videos collapse the barrier between the spirit world and the teeming commercial streetscape.

Some of the work is more allusive. A sequence of drawings, photographs, and sculpture by Swazi artist Nandipha Mntambo, who works in Johannesburg, appears to have little to do with masks — and much to do with cattle — until its payoff: a self-portrait, and one of the artist’s mother, as mythic half-bovine creatures. (One is subtitled Now I’m Here.) Black-and-white charcoals by Toyin Ojih Odutola depict near-disappeared figures, while wallpaper by Sam Vernon with cell-like structures, according to the artist, “speak[s] about what can fade in and out of view.”

Economic commentary is also on display. Four stark self-portraits by Angolan artist Edson Chagas, winner of the Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, show him wearing over his head various printed shopping bags; it’s a piece about identity amid the flotsam of globalization. An installation by Kenyan-Canadian artist Brendan Fernandes includes a herd of plastic deer wearing what appear to be white Maasai masks. It’s all artifice: The deer are hunting decoys, and the Maasai don’t have a masquerade tradition. Fernandes says the work was inspired by Canal Street, where stalls sell “African” masks actually made in a backroom.

There’s some conceptual scatter in “Disguise,” but the core fibers are strong enough to hold it together. The show’s emotional heart may dwell in work by Nigerian artist Zina Saro-Wiwa, who presents 28 photographs of Ogele maskers — a form of masquerade that arose in recent decades in Nigeria’s Ogoni community — and an affecting video triptych.

The daughter of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was assassinated by Nigeria’s military regime in 1995, Zina returned to Ogoniland in 2013. She noticed that the Ogele masks — tiered pieces very different from past tradition — often included effigies of her father. Tracking down the secretive Ogele, she became interested in the men themselves. Her photographs show them part-costumed or in everyday clothes, in a liminal space, neither quite in nor out of masquerade.

Meanwhile, in one panel of the triptych, visibly exhausted women don masks, while in another a masked figure grows increasingly agitated, until the screen itself appears to shatter. Saro-Wiwa’s art is intervention: She has formed a women’s mask troupe and photographed herself masking. But it also traces a continuum that sidelines the old debates of tradition versus modernity, practical item versus art object. What’s left is the gesture of masking, in all its eerie strength. “Masks have power; it’s no small matter,” Saro-Wiwa says. “It’s a very strange kind of energy. I’m still making my peace with the work.”

‘Disguise: Masks and Global African Art’
Brooklyn Museum
Through September 18