Disguise: Masks & Global African Art
Fowler Museum at UCLA
October 18, 2015 to March 13, 2016
By MEGAN ABRAHAMS, FEB. 2016
The word disguise is itself mutating. Both a noun and verb, it alludes to a change of appearance with the intent to conceal one’s true identity. The tantalizing concept of transformation, masquerade and morphing identity is explored in Disguise, an intense, absorbing and cleverly conceived exhibit rooted in traditional Nigerian culture and folklore, and re-envisioned by 12 contemporary artists -- six each from Africa and the diaspora -- with revelatory results.
What emerge are diverse explorations on the theme of masquerade across a variety of media -- video, sculpture, still photography, drawing, assemblage, textile art, sound, installation and more. While the theme of masquerade may suggest elements of playfulness, it also implies deception, trickery, the act of dissembling. As such, much of the work is imbued with darkness. Disturbing innuendos creep in, as inevitably, a scary component -- even the prospect of evil -- may hide behind the mask. The net effect is a curious montage of traditional elements of African masquerade embossed with a dystopian futuristic imprint.
Several of the artists represented here investigate the connection between human and animal, using disguise to anthropomorphize animals or transform humans into hybrid creatures. Among the more disturbing, though innovative, approaches to the masquerade theme is evident in the work of Nandipha Mntambo. Instead of clay, wood or metal, the South African artist uses cowhide to make relief sculptures that mimic the human form, reflecting her interest in traversing the boundary between human and animal. The culmination of this idea is the shocking and stunning 2008 photograph, Europa, in which Mntambo’s face is depicted as partially transformed into that of a cow. Fur appears to be growing on her forehead, and horns from the sides of her head. She gazes out of the frame, her eyes confronting the viewer with a look of defiance.
An installation by Brendan Fernandes also manipulates the animal-human connection in a surprising way. Commenting on the unauthentic way primitive culture is typically represented and perceived, in his installation, Neo Primitivism, the Kenyan Canadian artist juxtaposes fake plastic African masks on decoy deer. Further exploring the masquerade theme, in his adjacent series of neon-on-glass frame signs, Fernandes extrapolates tribal masks onto the modern flashing, commercial medium of neon, re-contextualizing their significance and meaning.
In its own isolated gallery, the intricate woven wire sculptures of Walter Oltmann are elaborate embellished visions of the downsized human figure. In a series inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the South African sculptor has created drawings and three-dimensional renderings of part-human, part-insect forms. Spiked with wires, some of the pieces, like Razor Brush Disguise, (2014) bristle with energy, as if whirling in the motion of dance. The piece also embodies a sense of danger, incorporating the menace of barbed wire looped through the bristles.
Included in the exhibit are several intriguing videos, among them, An Ancestor Takes a Photograph, a deeply layered project by Nigerian artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji, which probes attitudes about gender through the use of disguise. In this 2014 presentation, which involves the creation of costumes and staged performance art, Ogunji challenges traditional gender roles by re-envisioning the concept of Egungun, a Yoruba masquerade connected to ancestor reverence. In traditional Egungun, male dancers are typically dressed in elaborate head to toe tent-like costumes that totally conceal the wearer’s identity. In her own twist on the masquerade, Ogunji created contemporary embroidered minimalist costumes for a troupe of female performers. The video documents the costumed women as they walk through the streets of Lagos, encountering a range of audience reactions from indifference to animated curiosity.
One of the most visionary works in Disguise is Saya Woolfalk’s enchanting project, The Institute of Empathy. The Japanese born artist has reinterpreted identity through her own science fiction world. Woolfalk’s installation is centered on the Empathics, fictional hybrid female entities created by the artist. Using masks from Sierra Leone as an inspirational point of departure, Woolfalk gives them new symbolic life by incorporating their facsimiles on her enchanting life-size textile-based sculptures. Surreal figures, the Empathics seem to possess features borrowed from plants, birds and other creatures. Presented in a darkened gallery, resplendent in costumes with exquisitely detailed quilting and beadwork, the figures stand before a black wall enlivened with a background of painted otherworldly flower-like forms. Lights and music create a hypnotically immersive experience.
Originally organized by the Seattle Art Museum, the Fowler presentation of Disguise features selected pieces from its own permanent collection, which includes extensive examples of relevant African masks, grounding the new interpretations by contemporary artists in historical context. Traditionally, masquerade was rooted in long held religious practice, superstition and mythology. A sort of wake up call, these new school iterations of masquerade are iconoclastic. Somehow transcending the often passive museum experience, the works in Disguise are compelling, provocative visual encounters which prod the viewer to reconsider conventionally held views about humanity, Africa, origins, heritage, performance, gender and identity. A natural progression of the Fowler’s extraordinary 2010 exhibit, Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth, Disguise travels next to the Brooklyn Museum, April 29 to September 18, 2016 where it will metamorphose once more, featuring shifting identities in the shape of an expanded roster of participating artists. WM
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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