Disguise: Masks & Global African Art at Seattle Art Museum

Museums are constantly devising new platforms to present their permanent collections. Interventions and mining-the-museum have become commonplace curatorial strategies, and institutions frequently turn to contemporary artists to animate, recontextualize, and bring visibility to canonized cultural objects. Disguise: Masks and Global African Art is Seattle Art Museum’s latest attempt to draw connections across temporal, geographic, and cultural lines. Leveraging the museum’s collection of African masks, the exhibition features over twenty international artists from Africa or of African descent whose work explores the ways we disguise—how we use adornment to conceal, exemplify, and masquerade.

Edison Chagas. OIKONOMOS, 2011; digital print; 41 3/4 x 41 3/4 in. Courtesy of the artist and A Palazzo Gallery.

Edison Chagas. OIKONOMOS, 2011; digital print; 41 3/4 x 41 3/4 in. Courtesy of the Artist and A Palazzo Gallery.

Daringly raucous, Disguise is a multisensory splendor of new media, performance, installation, and sound. It represents a curatorial intent to breathe new life into stagnant collections by cultivating dialogues between carved wood and digital image, colonial empire and postcolonial diaspora. The exhibition further signifies an institutional vision to highlight and, more importantly, to commission new work by underrepresented artists. Though admirable, these intentions prove to be an inadequate mask for the unsettling issues that pervade the show’s conceptual core.

Sondra Perry’s mirrored videos Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I and II (2013) open the exhibition, featuring dancers whose movements have been accelerated to a maniacal speed. Employing the “content aware” tool frame-by-frame, Perry has erased the dancers’ bodies, resulting in two frenzied forms covered by the white walls that surround them. Only their hair remains exposed—a blatant racial signifier that cannot be disguised. For the curators, Perry’s piece introduces a theme that is crucial to the exhibition as a whole, alluding to Frantz Fanon’s notion in “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” In this chapter from Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon describes living in a world that does not see him, but only sees his body. For a black man in a postcolonial society, subjectivity is produced out of institutionalized racism. Fanon remains “always a Negro, never a man”—a madness-inducing, inescapable reality that confines him within his own appearance. For Perry, however, the piece was about creating “paraspaces,” a term that comes from science fiction to describe realms parallel to our own. While compelling, the idea of a “paraspace” connects only tenuously to the curatorial framework of disguise.

Sondra R. Perry. Double Quadruple Etcetera I (video still), 2013; HD single-channel video loop; 1:54 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

Sondra R. Perry. Double Quadruple Etcetera I (video still), 2013; HD single-channel video loop; 1:54. Courtesy of the Artist.

Jakob Dwight’s series of sixteen looped videos, The Autonomous Prism (2010–2014), melds authorial intent and curatorial vision within a compelling and discernible display. Dwight has constructed digital masks by cutting and recombining bits of his data stream. The shimmering, nebulous forms pulse as digital flotsam collides. Their glow reflects on a row of African masks that confront Dwight’s work from Plexiglas-covered vitrines. It is here that the crux of Disguise will slap even the most novice museum-goer in the face with the potential for new meaning to be drawn from existing cultural forms. Albeit heavy-handed, Dwight’s work evokes questions of digital masquerade and the possibility for multiple selves to be articulated through various platforms provided by online network culture.

Brendan Fernandes. <i>As One</i>, 2015; HD video loop; 22:54 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

Brendan Fernandes. As One, 2015; HD video loop; 22:54. Courtesy of the Artist.

Brendan Fernandes has choreographed a selection of video/performance works that engage in a similar physical dialogue, or dance, with masks from the museum’s collection. As One (2015) comprises two videos shown on a single loop that feature classically trained ballet dancers in an arabesque duet with the masks. The masks are not worn, but rather installed on single white pedestals. Shot in black-and-white, the piece is a stunning meditation on cultural hierarchy and how knowledge is presented and perpetuated within the institutional frame. As a Canadian-based artist raised in Kenya, Fernandes has never been affiliated with a regional culture that practices masquerade. Even so, the mask has become a universal “African” signifier—a trope that Fernandes views as ripe for satirical pastiche. In Neo Primitivism 2 (2007–2014), a flock of plastic deer decoys are outfitted with tourist-shop “Kenyan” tribal masks, adorning fakery atop fakery. The series Hiz Hands (2010) and Voo Doo You Doo Speak (2010) integrate graphic images of masks with Dadaist poems and Morse code, creating multisensory installations that question the ways that African motifs have been appropriated, translated, and commoditized.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji. An Ancestor Takes a Photograph, 2014. Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji. An Ancestor Takes a Photograph, 2014. Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

American Nigerian artist Wura Natasha Ogunji expresses a more tangible connection to Yourba masquerade. Her project, An Ancestor Takes a Photograph (2014), takes traditional Egungun performance beyond kitschy imitation to cultivate a respectful, yet rigorous, critique. A two-channel video projects documentation of two performers walking through a busy commercial district in Lagos. Both wear hazmat-style suits embroidered with a street map overlay, with hoods shrouding their faces and orange gloves and silver shoes protecting their hands and feet. To a Western audience, the performers appear to be craftivist cosmonauts, making their way through a foreign marketplace with selfie sticks in tow. The Nigerians captured on film certainly take notice, with the costumes serving as a beacon, rather than a camouflaging disguise. Whether perceived as civil disobedience or comedic performance, the piece inverts traditional Egungun masquerade by placing women at the fore, honoring matrilineal ancestry and the women who inhabit Lagos communities, walking the streets everyday.

Additional highlights of Disguise include photography by Zina Saro-Wiwa and Edison Chagas, Saya Woolfalk’s Chimera from the Empathic Series (2013), Nandipha Mntambo’s Europa (2008), Walter Oltmann’s wire sculptures, and a soundscape created by Emeka Ogboh. Throughout the exhibition, the interpretive texts are composed entirely of artist quotes, with the intention to promote individual voice over institutional authority. While some texts successfully illuminate the work in the context of the show, others convolute and confound. Disguise is an ambitious and admirable endeavor for a collections-based museum, although the curatorial premise can be perceived as problematic—does an “ethnic” group show promote or further marginalize already underrepresented artists? Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of our public museums to challenge their audiences as well as themselves with provoking new ideas that upset tradition, broaden perspective, and reveal connections that rearrange the world around us.

Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, curated by Pamela McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art for the Seattle Art Museum, and Erika Dayla Massaquoi, Consultant Curator, is on view at the Seattle Art Museum through September 7, 2015. The exhibition will travel to the Fowler Museum at UCLA (October 18, 2015March 13, 2016) and to the Brooklyn Museum (April 29–September 18, 2016).


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