“Disguise: Masks and Global African Art” at the Fowler Museum at UCLA was the second of the exhibition's three iterations, curated by Seattle Art Museum Curator of African and Oceanic Art Pamela McClusky and consulting curator Erika Dalya Massaquoi. Positioning masks and masquerade as the exhibition's conceptual catalysts, the curators aimed to fill the interstice between the often static presentations of masks in museum settings and the immersive experience of lived masquerade, envisioning the show itself as an unfixed performance. Centering on ten contemporary artists, with the majority commissioned to produce new works, the show explored themes engendered by masquerade in expansive ways. With a propensity towards new media, participating artists came from both the continent and the diaspora, reflecting the global dimension of the exhibition heralded in its title. Supplementing the ten core artists, the Fowler Museum installation included a small sampling of contemporary artwork that had also been on view in Seattle, as well as masks from the Fowler's extensive collection of African art. The UCLA exhibition was significantly smaller and included fewer artists than in Seattle, but its reduced size did not diminish its visual or conceptual punch.
Confronting visitors as they entered the main gallery space were Sondra Perry's videos Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I and II (both 2013) (Fig. 3), in which she digitally layered dancers' frenzied improvised movements to create fragmented, flailing figures whose bodies blended into the white wall behind them. Visitors then passed underneath Emeka Ogboh's sound piece Egwutronica (2015), which explored the music of Igbo masquerade by sampling melodies and rhythms of traditional instruments and mixing them with synthesized elements. Ogboh challenged the silent and sacred space of the museum, and visitors could catch snippets of the recording as they moved throughout the gallery. This intermittent music added to the repeated ambient soundtrack of Saya Woolfalk's room-sized installation ChimaTEK: Avatar Download Station and Virtual Chimeric Space (2015) (Fig. 4). These overlapping musical scores provided the viewer with a sometimes disjunctive audio component to the visual art, meant to reflect the encompassing experience of a masquerade.
ChimaTEK, a fictional corporation of Empathics, featured a wall projection of a mechanized system of rainbow-hued graphic patterns, before which stood life-size sculptures of the Empathics. Inspired by human-animal-hybrid forms in the Seattle Art Museum's African art collection, Woolfalk styled the Empathics' clothing to resemble feathers and wings. A business comprising solely women, some ChimaTEK figure ensembles incorporated reproductions of Mende Sowei masks, worn during one of the few all-female masquerades on the continent. Throughout the exhibition's run, a trio of performers periodically activated the installation. Dressed in white, the lead actor performed a cryptic repetitious ritual and the projected psychedelic colors of the background system mapped onto the three bodies.
As visitors left through one of the ChimaTEK exits, they could see Nandipha Mntambo's chimeric Sengifkile (2009), a bust of the artist's mother as a human/bull being, and part of Mntambo's series of drawings, photographs, and sculptures investigating the Greek myth of the minotaur. To enter or leave ChimaTek, visitors passed through Walter Oltmann's intricate small woven suits reminiscent of European armor, which explored how disguise is often a protective act. The figures were covered with caterpillar bristles that “othered” their otherwise recognizable forms. As hybrid human-insects, they appeared to be caught in the process of metamorphosis.
This state of indeterminacy is a central feature of African masquerade. Often wearing full-body costumes, dancers become characters outside of themselves once they don their masks. The Fowler Museum installation included two fully costumed seated masks from the Egungun, a Yoruba masquerade that celebrates ancestors. Vibrant photographs of Egungun by contemporary artists surrounded the figures, including Jean-Claude Moschetti's romanticized triptychs of masks surrounded by exotic vegetation.
While Egungun and other masquerades are male-centered art forms, Wura-Natasha Ogunji disrupts this norm in her video An Ancestor Takes a Photograph (2014) (Fig. 5). Investigating the camera's ubiquitous and often invasive nature, Ogunji and a collaborator donned hazmat-like suits with cameras positioned on their chests and walked the streets of Lagos. Causing a disruptive wrinkle in the hubbub of Lagos, passersby peered at, pointed to, confronted, or ignored the wandering masks, seemingly unaware that their actions were recorded. Ogunji and her collaborator's own bodies and female identities, however, remained hidden. In the gallery installation, footage from both cameras played on two screens, showing both masks' perspectives simultaneously. The suits were displayed alongside the videos, allowing visitors to inspect their stitched neon cartographic designs. Located next to the Egungun photographs and seated masks, the two installations made for a thought-provoking and visually stimulating pairing.
Also concerned with challenging masquerade's traditional gender dichotomies, artist Zina Saro-Wiwa began an all-female masquerade troupe in her native Ogoniland in Nigeria's Niger River Delta. Her video triptych The Invisible Man: The Weight of Absence (2015) (Fig. 6) depicts troupe members performing a series of emotive facial expressions, as well as a hulking Janus-faced mask designed by Saro-Wiwa. This powerful work invokes the painful experience of loss and absence, whether of her father Ken Saro-Wiwa (executed by the Nigerian government in 1995 for his activism against human and environmental exploitation), Saro-Wiwa's own absences from her homeland, or the historical obstruction of Ogoni female creativity.
Jacolby Satterwhite's videos were installed next to Saro-Wiwa's works, a proximity that prompted a surprising dialogue. Drawing from family history and memory, Satterwhite digitally rendered his mother's inventive drawings to create the 3-D environment of his animated video Country Ball 1989–2012. Bodies, some of them Satterwhite's, vogue or repeat basic movements within a darkly fantastical virtual dance party. In other videos, Satterwhite's voguing figure is covered by a full body catsuit, in an attempt to feature a deracialized and de-gendered performative body within the landscape.
Dance was also foregrounded in Brendan Fernandes's As One (2015), in which two ballet dancers interacted with displayed African masks, including examples from Bobo and Kuba masquerade. Fernandes brought these European and African “classical” performative traditions together, but while the dancers enacted deference to the masks in the style of French ballet, the masks themselves remained static in their museum setting. The quiet elegance of this video contrasted with Fernandes's tongue-and-cheek installation Neo Primitivism 2 (2007–14) (Fig. 7), comprising another mash-up: a herd of plastic deer decoys wearing fake African masks. Allocated a large installation space within the exhibition, Fernandes's included works spanned his practice, addressing masks, authenticity, and appropriation.
For the participating artists in “Disguise,” masquerade was not merely an art form, but a multivalent artistic approach through which they could explore a variety of themes and topics. Visually engaging and accessible to the student viewership of a university art museum, the masks from the Fowler's collection on view served a contextual and didactic purpose when exhibited alongside the contemporary art. With the exhibition's emphasis on new media, the inclusion of the masks also underscored the long history of African artists' engagement with various technologies. The cosmopolitan curatorial outlook of McClusky, Massaquoi, and the Fowler staff refreshingly expanded the criteria for who and what can be included in an African art exhibition. Although anchored by an art form tied directly to the continent, “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art” provided examples of the far-reaching resonance of African art in a global contemporary art world.
The exhibition was accompanied by the catalogue Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, published by the Seattle Art Museum, with contributions by the artists and curators (103 pp. with color illustrations; $40.00 cloth).