A lot of time is spent imagining the future of museums and how they can be better midwives of ideas, not just arbiters and repositories. However, we must also urgently rectify problems of the past and present: the colonial history behind major collections; a dearth of work from artists of color and women; fraught representations of cultures that become merely exoticized. At this point, we are in triage, so every attempt to step away from more traditional subjects and methods includes a risk. When a show addresses so many past and future concerns at once, it can get messy, as was the case with “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art,” curated by Pamela McClusky and Erika Dalya Massaquoi at Seattle Art Museum.
The saturation of new media in “Disguise” was tailormade for tech-savvy Seattle audiences who want a futuristic vibe, but the spectacle was not met with a rigorous challenge to understand (and to admit that one will never fully understand) complex traditions and cultural intersections so removed from the region. Artists of color were given space, but—unified only by this lineage— their rich perspectives were flattened as the works competed rather than complemented. This dynamic was exacerbated by the lack of a curatorial narrative, which did not free the viewers to dive deeper, but left them to wade in the shallows. Core questions of identity were neither asked nor answered with much clarity. In short, the show had good optics, but vision was lacking.
In the opening room, the walls were lit with a dozen projections of glitchy symmetrical stripes of light generated in an aleatoric method created by Jakob Dwight (Fig. 1). Each projection was contained in an enlarged silhouette of an African mask from SAM's collection. This collection was ostensibly the inspiration for the show. Dozens of masks had long languished on a single dais, which did little to dispel popular simplifications of Africa as a monolithic culture. This was a chance to give them greater attention and illuminate masquerade culture.
That didn't happen. Dwight was one of three commissioned artists (none of whom had connections to masquerade) to make works responding to this collection. Another, Brendan Fernandes, referenced the myth of a monolithic Africa with neon sculptures designed after inauthentic masks marketed to tourists. Fernandes's light sculptures were displayed among a herd of resin deer, whose faces were covered by other touristy, white masks. Such kitschy criticism indicts postcolonial consumer absurdity, but neither enlightens nor inspires one to pursue the authentic article.
No exhibition of reasonable scale could address both sociopolitical notions of identity in “global” art and the ritual embodiment of masquerade, and in “Disguise” the latter really was just adornment for the former. A few photos by Jean-Claude Moschetti, whose personal access to secret societies in West Africa is unprecedented, were among the few documents of authentic masquerade. There is so much to learn here, but didactics were scarce and replaced by portraits of the artists with vague quotes about the work in their own words. Viewers were invited to respond emotionally to the works on their own, but can one expect a proper response if one has no context for what one is seeing, especially if we acknowledge (and critique in the same show) a stigma of exoticism and primitivism around the arts of Africa? This lack of didactics seems an attempt to avoid institutional bias, which would impose a single narrative on works and viewers at the exclusion of others. If the curators had chosen works that offered a coherent exploration of more specific themes, this might have worked, but the results here are too diffuse.
That said, there were glimmers of understanding. Fernandes's collaborative work with ballet dancers and costume designer Anna Rose Telcs was captured in video and provided one of the more lyrical expressions of the aesthetics that become mythologized in masquerade. There was a ritual aspect to the immersive installation by Saya Woolfalk (Fig. 2), the third commissioned artist for “Disguise.” Woolfalk's practice escapes the burden of history and superficial politics by generating narratives that exist in another world, all in the celebration of empathy. Elsewhere in the exhibition, sound suits by Nick Cave bespoke an instinctive need to physically escape into one's creations and had aesthetic parallels with the garb of masquerade, seen in Moschetti's photos.
Jacolby Satterwhite's work has a similar glimmer of transcendence. The ball culture that inspires the choreography in his animations is another case where pageantry provides a community and a platform for self-distinction, without explicitly mystical aspects. Ball culture is a haven of resistance for minority groups (especially queer people of color), where the performers can feel more authentically themselves. It meets an emotional and intellectual need and provides fertile ground for Satterwhite's surrealism, which gives his animations a tinge of the spiritual: the repetition of dancing, elastic forms in cosmic settings.
Such a bizarre, exuberant admixture is effective in Satterwhite's work because it is unified in its virtual space by a single vision and aesthetic. “Disguise” was not unified, nor was it even a cross-section of artists working in an identifiably similar way. McClusky and Massasquoi seem to have been caught up in their passion for the art and the urgency of the queries, and the incomprehensible results should caution others. They did not even notice how “Disguise” ended with a final, galling act of appropriation: Visitors could stand in front of mirrors, to which mask replicas were affixed, and take selfies as if they were actually wearing the masks. This installation component was not repeated at subsequent venues and is an act of disguise, certainly, but not of masquerade.
Disguise (the general concept) is about the unknown, or even the impossibility of knowing. In “Disguise” (the exhibition) it would have been appropriate to challenge audiences to admit that there are things they will never know, never understand. From this admission humility, empathy, and curiosity should follow, not frustration and fear. Instead, “Disguise” oversimplified everything, allowing audiences to appropriate images and leave with the sense that they had participated in masquerade, that they know more than they actually do. Such a blinding lack of self-awareness is the most dangerous mask of all.