Recent discourses surrounding the museum representation of African art have generated complex and often heated debates. Some of the thorniest questions have centered on curatorial authority, the colonial legacies of institutional collecting practices, and the display of culturally sensitive objects. Polly Savage has previously argued in the pages of African Arts that the display of African art in Western museums is particularly vexing due to the objects' implied corporeal absence (2008: 74). Masks and other objects related to masquerade practices, for example, are part of much broader cosmological systems. When African artworks are displayed as discrete objects, they withhold much more information than they actually reveal. Moreover, how African artworks have made their way into museum collections has also opened up spaces of contestation. Curators are therefore challenged to consider new and innovative approaches to the exhibition of African art that probe more deeply into the histories of objects and collections.
One: Egúngún at the Brooklyn Museum sought to address some of these issues. Curated by Kristen Windmuller-Luna, recently hired Sills Family Consulting Curator of African Arts, One: Egúngún meticulously traced, according to the exhibition's press release, the life history of a singular early-twentieth century Yorùbá masquerade costume from its origins in Ògbómṣọ, Nigeria to its current home in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition was part of the One Brooklyn series, in which each exhibition is dedicated to one artwork in the Brooklyn Museum's vast, encyclopedic collection. One: Egúngún was refreshingly narrow in scope and rich in content, proposing a deep and experiential reading of a singular object—a strategy that is usually not permissible in large survey exhibitions.
The investigation into the history of this particular Egúngún invigorated the exhibition. Windmuller-Luna conducted extensive research into the costume's provenance, following it from its origins in Nigeria to its current home in the Brooklyn Museum. The Egúngún costume was acquired by the museum in 1998 through an individual gift. Initial inquiries into how the donor may have come to acquire the Egúngún revealed little information; the donor had died and he had few remaining relatives. In the summer of 2018, Windmuller-Luna traveled to Nigeria to conduct new research. Through interviews and archives, she was able to locate the Lekewọgbẹ family of Ògbómṣọ, descendants of the family that had originally owned the costume. In interviews with Windmuller-Luna, elders of the Lekewọgbẹ family revealed that the mask was removed from its shrine in 1948 by a member of their community, likely for reasons related to the monetary value of the cloth. Its trajectory to the United States is unknown and further research is ongoing. However, in conversations with Windmuller-Luna, the Lekewọgbẹ family clarified that the mask is no longer spiritually empowered and they gave their permission for the mask to remain in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum and on view to the public in this exhibition. At the family's request, a dedication to the Lekewọgbẹ family was placed at the entrance to the exhibition.
The centerpiece of One: Egúngún was a magnificent paka type of Egúngún masquerade dance costume (Fig. 1). In Yorùbá society, the Egúngún masquerade dance costume is one component of an elaborate, multimedia masquerade performance using costume, music, and dance. Egúngún masqueraders perform and interact with their audiences to evoke connections between the earthly and ancestral realms. The essential performativity of the Egúngún costume was effectively implied in its display. Placed on a central platform in the narrow gallery, the costume was positioned to simulate dynamic motion rather than presented as a fixed and static object. The exhibition design team, under Windmuller-Luna's direction, fabricated an elaborate metal armature that angled the costume to evoke the iconic barrel turn and the energetic swirl of the costume's hundreds of fabric panels. This particular type of paka Egúngún is distinguished by its voluminous and sumptuous ladderlike layers of African, Asian, and European cloth—from imported damasks, velvets, faux fur, and brocades to local indigo-dyed fabrics (Fig. 2). A video showing archival footage of an Egúngún masquerade ceremony in Nigeria clarified how the Egúngún is performed and the way in which the motion of the fabric activates the manifestation of the ancestors to the community. The video's placement at the opposite end of the gallery, as opposed to adjacent to the costume itself, diminished its associations with forms of ethnographic display.
The story of the paka Egúngún masquerade costume was enriched through the inclusion of other Yorùbá textiles, creating material and conceptual affinities between one of the highest forms of cloth and other types of Yorùbá textiles. The exhibition established the Yorùbá concepts of ìmojú-mora—innovation and imagination—and ojú-onà—design consciousness—as guiding thematic principles. While these concepts are relevant to a deeper understanding of the social and cultural meanings of cloth in Yorùbá society, these ideas were not immediately legible in the few objects on display without reading the lengthy wall labels. But this was not a survey exhibition and the selected textiles were thoughtfully chosen. Displayed adjacent to the Egúngún costume was a resplendent Yorùbá agbádá, or prestige robe, and an indgo-dyed wrapper. A second women's wax print wrapper was displayed in a case in the second part of the gallery that was similar to the type of fabric sewn underneath the panels of the Egúngún. Like the Egúngún costume, the indigo-dyed silk agbádá (Fig. 3) is a luxurious example of this type of textile and further illustrateed the way in which the abundance of material communicates wealth and prestige. According to the accompanying wall label, the Egúngún costume in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum incorporates remnants of a similar type of agbádá, establishing material and symbolic threads between ceremonial and vernacular forms of cloth.
One: Egúngún was not the sole perspective of a singular curatorial voice but involved the collaboration of over ninety individuals. A video compilation featuring interviews with the Lekewọgbẹ family as well as with Yorùbá artists and scholars contributed new perspectives around the historical and cultural value of this particular Egúngún and its meaning within the Yorùbá cosmology. Although the interview video was twenty minutes long, and some viewers may not have sat through it all, the interviews importantly brought the perspectives of the Lekewogbe family and the Yorùbá people into the space of the exhibition. This sense of inclusion extended to the exhibition's wall text and labels, which were printed in English and in Yorùbá and the first time that wall text for an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum included an African language. In addition to the connections made in Nigeria, Windmuller-Luna made a concerted effort to reach out to the Yorùbá diasporic community in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, who were invited to contribute wall text and photos to the exhibition. A wall text contributed by Brooklyn-born Oloye (Chief) Ayanda Ifadara Ojehe, an Egúngún initiate, established a connection between Egúngún masquerades in West Africa and in contemporary cultural practices in Brooklyn today, disproving preconceptions that Egúngún practices are part of the historical past.
In light of the controversy surrounding Windmuller-Luna's appointment, in which the activist group Decolonize This Place called her hire “a tone-deaf decision” in an open letter to the the Brooklyn Museum (https://decolonizebrooklynmuseum.wordpress.com/), the exhibition may have appeared as a response to critics. But while there is much work to be done to address the racial inequities in the curatorial profession generally, and in the field of African art in particular, Windmuller-Luna's depth of research and collaborative approach demonstrated a sensitivity to these issues. One: Egúngún pointed to the ways in which institutions like the Brooklyn Museum are reinterpreting and reinvigorating their permanent collections of African art, producing narrative-driven shows that address the artistic agency of producers. Overall, One: Egúngún was a solidly curated exhibition and hopefully one of many exhibitions to come that highlight the excellent African art collections at the Brooklyn Museum.