At the Brooklyn Museum's iteration of “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art,” I was struck by the presence of silence. Not of the space itself, which vibrated with the sounds of electronic beats fused with African percussive instruments via Emeka Ogboh's Egwutronica (2015) but of the visitors. Silence: the sound of contemplation. Throughout the exhibition, visitors seemed completely engaged and contemplative, suggesting that the diverse artworks on display deeply resonated with the public and that one of the exhibition's goals proclaimed on a wall text, “to reconnect masks and bodies with performance in order to address twenty-first-century issues,” was undoubtedly achieved. Not only were masks and performances embodied through the exhibition, but the “bodies” of visitors themselves were able to establish intellectual and personal connections to these varying forms of African art.
The exhibition was installed on the fifth floor of the museum, in the space frequently used for temporary exhibitions. African art curator Kevin Dumouchelle did a spectacular job ensuring that the space, although familiar, felt entirely new and refreshed. “Disguise” included works from twenty-five contemporary artists as well as historical African masks and masquerade costumes. Dumouchelle adeptly enhanced the exhibition by adding thirty-one historical and contemporary artworks that came largely from the museum's permanent collection, including additional photographs from Zina Saro-Wiwa's Men of the Ogele: The Whirlwind Series (2014–2015) and artworks by Adejoke Tugbiyele, Nick Cave, and Toyin Ojih Odutola. “Disguise” was divided into six thematic areas: “Becoming Artifacts,” “Becoming Another Body,” “Becoming Controlled,” “Becoming Another,” “Becoming Again,” and “Becoming Political.” These themes were used to group artists and artworks into “rooms,” allowing the narrative to gradually unfold and be shaped by how visitors chose to explore the exhibition. The premise of the exhibition was to interrogate and challenge our understanding of masks and masquerades by illustrating their continued significance in a contemporary context. The selected artworks were as diverse as the artists' themselves, resulting in a complex presentation of a globally connected and ever-changing continent that is actively addressing an array of twenty-first century topics, including feminism, technology, and queer identity.
Before engaging with the artworks that formed the body of the exhibition, visitors entered the “Becoming Artifacts” gallery (Fig. 8), which served as an introduction and a guide to the rest of the exhibition. An assortment of masks was displayed using expected and “canonized” methods: placed on large platforms, often under vitrines, and singularly hung on muted walls. The far wall of the gallery was covered with an enlarged historical photograph of African masks on “exhibit,” alluding to the problematic roots of contemporary curatorial practices. In addition to the introductory wall text, this room provided glimpses of the exhibition's overarching themes. A key element of this gallery was to question our understanding of “historical” in relation to nineteenth and twentieth century masks; as wall text explained: “masquerade is to some extent always ‘new.’ Each performance varies in response to changes in setting, music, costume, audience, and the performers' movements.” This point was of critical importance, but by relying on established exhibition practices, I felt the messages of “newness” and “variability” in relation to masks were slightly contradicted by the methods of display.
Transitioning from this smaller space to the main hall of the exhibition, visitors were immediately confronted by three dazzling ensembles: a Nick Cave soundsuit, a Gbetu mask with accompanying raffia costume, and an Egungun costume, frozen in mid-swirl. These costumes, accompanied by Alejandro Guzman's costume/sculpture/altar and photographs by Edson Chagas and Ike Ude formed the section “Becoming Another Body” (Fig. 9). In each artwork, the subject or wearer of the costume is partially or completely obscured from view, illustrating how by concealing and revealing various parts of the human form, specific narratives and ideologies are powerfully invoked and enacted. This “room” was particularly coherent in its juxtapositions, as one could immediately discern the similarities and influences between the three ensembles. Furthermore, the linearity of the soundsuit and the Gbetu ensemble were beautifully contrasted by the extreme horizontality of the Gelede.
One of the strongest visual pairings was part of “Becoming Another” and featured the works of South African artists Nandipha Mntambo and Walter Oltmann. With the current surge of discussions regarding racial inequalities in South Africa and movements like Rhodes Must Fall, placing a black and a white South African artist “in conversation” was particularly poignant. Mntambo's use of “natural” cowhide served as a foil to Oltmann's bristling metal sculptures; both artists' creations made powerful statements regarding established conceptions of gender, race, and what individuals define as “Other.” Mntambo and Oltmann's works seemed to radiate energy, as if the sculptural figures were indeed becoming living, “nonhuman” entities (Fig. 10).
As the third artist in “Becoming Another,” Saya Woolfalk's installation ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space (2015) was a favorite with visitors, particularly children, for its vivid and immersive qualities. Woolfalk's static figures, the majority of which are covered in a kalediascopic patchwork of colors and materials, are Empathics: a fictional group of women that Woolfalk describes as hybridized beings. As the latest iteration of an ongoing project, ChimaTEK focuses on the corporatization of a hybridization process developed by the Empathics, what wall text described as offering “its customers the opportunity to try on new hybrid identities.”
I was initially captivated by Woolfalk's installation, hypnotized by the space and the work's afro-futurist invocations, but students from my African art history courses challenged me to interrogate Woolfalk's use of the iconic Sande society masks. While many of the figures were indeed amalgamations of various cultures and histories, subtly hinting at their origins (some of the garments bore vague similarities to the historical dress of samurai), Woolfalk directly borrowed the forms and carving styles of specific and recognizable Sande society masks, amending them only by painting their surfaces with bright, neon colors (Fig. 11). Academics are well aware of the social, cultural, and historical significance of these particular masks, information that was largely absent from Woolfalk's installation; the contextual information that was provided was relegated to a corner of the gallery, easily overlooked or ignored by visitors. In regards to Woolfalk's use of the ndoli jowei, the question remains: Are they subtle and reflexive allusions or blatant appropriations? Furthermore, when an artist reimagines an iconic and particularly potent form of African art, how much curatorial contextualization is necessary and appropriate?
The final spaces, “Becoming Again” and “Becoming Political,” addressed both the reinventions of masquerade forms and how masks can be used to critique established and institutionalized ideologies. I was particularly taken by the work of Brendan Fernandes, whose own identity as a Kenyan/Canadian/Brooklyn-based artist actively complicates expectations of African contemporary artists, attesting to their inherently global identities. His artworks were humorous and thought-provoking. Fernandes's From Hiz Hands (2010) consisted of three neon signs, modeled after African masks from various museums' collections (Fig. 12). The accompanying text explained that these flashing neon masks, “speaking” in their own secretive language, questioned notions of authenticity, alluding to the active consumption of historical African art and the industry of mass-producing “African” art and artifacts. It was clever and visually arresting, an interrogation and subtle critique of our own field.
There is an ongoing academic discussion of how best to incorporate artists' own thoughts and perspectives into an exhibition, but “Disguise” takes a definitive stand: Allow the artists and the curator, through wall labels, to speak in tandem. This was one of the simplest, yet most powerful curatorial decisions of the exhibition, illustrating the importance of allowing artists to speak for themselves. For Nigerian artist Toyin Ojih Odutola's drawing A Legless Bird … (2016; part of the section “Becoming Controlled”), Odutola's personal reflections on “becoming black” in America and her philosophical considerations of blackness and whiteness were juxtaposed with a curatorial discussion of racial classification and a brief interpretation of Odutola's work. Ike Ude's explanation in wall text of his photograph Sartorial Anarchy #23 (2013) is simultaneously poetic and relatable: “my clothes and accessories are precisely akin to a painter's palette, and my body, akin to the canvas.” By incorporating the considerations and explanations of participating artists, the exhibition immediately becomes more personal and approachable. I applaud the curators for making this decision, as it adds an additional layer of significance to a majority of the included works.
The exhibition's introductory wall text posits that “masquerade has historically been a catalyst for public engagement with the key issues of their time.” “Disguise” has shown that masquerade is also a catalyst for engagement in a contemporary context; it is the kind of exhibition that will continue to foster all manner of healthy and necessary conversations that will ultimately benefit the fields of African art history and museum studies. There is much more that could be discussed, but that is ultimately the mark of a successful exhibition.