Monday 18 January 2016


The influence of African masks on the work of selected contemporary artists is being examined in a critically acclaimed show that runs until March 13 at the Fowler Museum, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Bristle Disguise by Walter Oltmann,
a South African artist. (Photo: A. Pokroy)
The exhibition, “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art”, explores 21st-century artistic evocations of the African mask and contemporary forms of disguise, and it challenges viewers’ perceptions of identity, the curators say.

Organized in collaboration with the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), the show brings together contemporary artists working in Africa and America. For two years, SAM’s Curator of African and Oceanic Art Pamela McClusky, and Consultant Curator Erika Dalya Massaquoi, sought out artists who explore the idea of disguise in their work.

They selected 12 contemporary artists to represent the core themes of the show, and eight of those artists were commissioned to produce new visions and sounds specifically for the exhibition.

According to McClusky, the artists were encouraged to use SAM’s collection of African masks as a catalyst for creating fresh visions of masquerade.  The work they produced includes photography, drawing, video, performance, installation and sculpture.

Alongside their creations, examples of the same mask genres from the Fowler collection are on display during the exhibition - which the Fowler says goes beyond disguise, representing a “bold move” to bring masquerade into the museum.

“These contemporary artists use the notion of disguise to hide their identity and reveal issues of social, political or cultural import in their work,” according to the curators.

Neo Primitivism 2, by Brendan Fernandes, Kenya/Canada.
(Photo courtesy of the artist.)
“The act of altering or concealing one’s identity is at the core of traditional African masquerade, though with an important addition – an individual’s identity is not only concealed but entirely transformed,” they stated.

The 12 artists comprise six from continental Africa and six Americans of African heritage, who employ “artistic strategies of disguise" as well as "key visual and performative elements of traditional African masquerade in their work”.

The group includes British-Nigerian author, artist and filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa, who was born in Nigeria in 1976 and whose father – the writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa – was executed in 1995 in the Niger Delta.

Returning to the region in 2013, Zina Saro-Wiwa began a journey of cultural discovery, according to the show’s curators. “She went in search of masquerade culture in her indigenous Ogoni homeland and came across a modern form of masquerade started in the late 1980s called Ogele, a masquerade featuring a heavy, tiered mask that told stories about modern day politics as well as animist deities.

The Invisible Man by Zina Saro-Wiwa, US/UK/NIgeria.
(Photo courtesy of the artist)
“Inspired by this modern form of masquerade, Saro-Wiwa decided to create a mask and all-female masquerade group for herself. The mask she designed called ‘The Invisible Man’ explores her own personal demons. This neo-Ogoni mask is a document of loss. It depicts the men that have disappeared in her life – her activist father who was murdered and her brother among them. Through this exploration she wants to bring African masks to life in a completely fresh way,” the curators added.

A selection of the Fowler’s Ogoni masks is shown beside her work as inspiration. “I want to bridge the gap I always feel when I go and see African masks in museums. I want emotional connection,” Saro-Wiwa has said.

Curator McClusky told SWAN that all the artists have taken an old art form to produce contemporary and “entirely new masquerades” to challenge viewers ideas of disguise and identity.

“It’s a common fact of life that we disguise what we’re thinking and feeling, and masks force us to realize this,” she said.

Marla Berns, the Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler (a position named after major funders), added that disguise in African masquerade can be a tool for facilitating transformation but that the featured artists use it to “comment on the challenges and complexities” of our increasingly digital and globalized lives.

“The artists meld carved wooden sculptural forms with new electronic media; they create spaces for women in masking traditions formerly dominated by men; they challenge our understandings of what constitutes authenticity in African masks; and they stimulate questions about the heritage of African masquerade and the invention of modern Western art,” Berns said.

To accompany the exhibition, the Seattle Art Museum and Yale University Press have co-published an illustrated catalog containing artists’ statements, an essay by McClusky, and an interview with Dalya Massaquoi. 

(The Fowler is part of UCLA Arts and is located on the university's campus.)