Whitehot Magazine

Dancing with the Masks - an interview with Masela Nkolo

Masela Nkolo studio portrait, 2023.


By CLARE GEMIMA March 14, 2024

Dancing with the Masks unfolds at the Jones Carter Gallery in Lake City, South Carolina, from January 18 to March 9, 2024. The exhibition showcases the work of Masela Nkolo, an Atlanta-based multimedia artist whose creations deliberately challenge easy categorization. Nkolo's artistic journey has been marked by resilience and revelation, shaped notably by an early setback—the failure of a sculpting course during his formative years at art school. This setback became a catalyst for growth, prompting Nkolo to forge a more authentic identity, and establish a practice rooted in his Congolese heritage. Through a blend of tradition and innovation, Nkolo's masks serve as a profound exploration of cultural identity and societal issues embedded near and far. In this interview, Nkolo reflects on his artistic process, inspirations, and the profound narratives woven into his evocative collection of new work. 

Clare Gemima: How did the initial setback of failing the sculpting course during your first year in art school shape you as an artist, and how do you reflect on that moment at this point in your career? 

Masela Nkolo: Failing my first year of art was an important opportunity that helped me discover myself, my identity, and the identity of my art. There were things that I had misunderstood and I was given the time to self-reflect. So when I look back at that moment, I am grateful because it provided me space to mature in a lot of ways.

Clare Gemima: Your artistic creations seamlessly blend traditional and modern African influences. Could you elaborate on specific elements that play a crucial role in expressing the rich tapestry of your personal Congolese heritage?

Masela Nkolo: Well, being Congolese is a privilege, and growing up among more than 450 tribes with more than 250 languages is quite a blessing. It is pure luck to be born into the Kongo and Yombe tribes. As a result, the characters of my sculptures are influenced by traditional masks. However, I choose to use different and new material to express the masks.

Tshimpoyi 01, 2023. Drip bowls, wax, screwdrivers, lanterns, skimmers, beads, wood,  foam, and acrylic. 61 x 61 x 17 1/2 in.  Photo courtesy of the artist.  

Clare Gemima: What is ‘Neo-Ngongism’? Could you delve into the evolution of the movement made popular in your hometown of Kinshasa? 

Masela Nkolo: Neo-Ngongism is a movement created in 2009 by young artists of my generation whose vision was to awaken the Congolese population through art. It was a dynamic movement which had brought a new wind of activism within the capital of the country. John Bongengya was our leader, and Bega Koma, Alfred Ebengani, Rolly Ditunga, and Aristote Mago were other artists I created alongside with.  

“Neo'' means “new,” and “ngongism” comes from the Lingala word meaning “bell.” Neo-Ngongism was a new sound of art to make people pay attention to the issues going on within our society. Essentially we were artistic activists, who then inspired other artists within the city who went onto create movements of their own.

Clare Gemima: Everyday items such as whisks, cheese graters, and oil lanterns play a prominent role in your sculptures. What inspired the selection of these objects, and how do they serve as vehicles for unraveling the historical and contemporary layers of Congo? 

Masela Nkolo: As an artist, I believe that daily life is one of the purest definitions of art. Each kitchen utensil or everyday tool always reminds us of something from our childhood. The biggest problem is often how important an object is while we are children, yet the impact the object had on our lives ceases to exist as we grow. Sometimes historical and contemporary topics can be better understood by taking a familiar concept and then reconnecting it with something else. Using objects that people are already familiar with, then transforming them so that they can use that familiarity to connect with something else, is why I use everyday household items. 

Mukanda Mask 02, 2023. Galvanized steel, lanterns, screwdrivers, epoxy, cheese graters, wax, drip bowls, skimmers, wax, acrylic, and foam. 28 × 41 × 12 in.  Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Clare Gemima: What material do you find the most difficult to manipulate, and how many blue screwdrivers do you think you have used in creating this exhibition? I lost count at 150…  

Masela Nkolo: I don't really have any difficulty with materials. Rather the difficulty is expressing and putting together the concept of the work in my head. As for the number of screwdrivers, I honestly  don't know. I didn't keep count, but I had several boxes full of them that I used. My process of using screwdrivers is inspired by a Congolese practice called “Bibaaku” which is the action of inserting nails or pieces of metal into the Nkodi Nkisi, a Congolese statute, to bind an agreement, or to keep away malevolent spirits. The Nkisi nails indicate the number of times the sculpture was ritually activated.  For me, the number of screwdrivers on each of my masks express decisions that I’ve made to choose positivity and peace over violence towards the human body.

Clare Gemima: Could you walk us through the process of making your masks specifically, and do you use different casts dependent on the gender of your subjects? 

Masela Nkolo: Usually my process begins with being inspired by a specific mask, and I'll begin to study the etiology and role of the mask. Then I begin to make my own contemporary version. Afterwards, I collect metal from small oil lanterns and bend and shape them into the structure of the mask. As for gender, it doesn't matter in my work. The masks are more spiritual. So the gender of my work is spirit.

Mukanda Mask 01, 2023. Galvanized steel, lanterns, screwdrivers, epoxy, door springs, skimmers, wax, acrylic and foam. 24 x 14 x 13 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Clare Gemima: Your performance at the shows opening invited plenty of shock value for Jones Carter Gallery and the wider audience of Artfields. Walking around the gallery with a drill held to your head while approaching audience members until your steely-masked face almost grazed their own, lended to a highly confronting and powerful experience. What was your audience witnessing in the gallery that night? What ideas were you teasing out?

Masela Nkolo: The idea behind that performance was to express and bring awareness to what's going on in Congo. People are dying because of the country's resources. The drill was symbolic of a gun, and in my other hand was a cell phone. Everyone present had a cell phone and was using it to take pictures and film, but were oblivious to the fact that the creation of those very cell phones were, and are, at the expense of Congolese lives and blood. 

Clare Gemima: What are your thoughts on Artfields, and would you recommend applying to their competitions as a South-East based artist? How has your relationship with the non-profit enhanced your own studio production and exhibition opportunities?

Masela Nkolo: Artfields is great at promoting a diverse group of artists. Through the competition, I've met and built relationships with several other artists. Artists who I've  worked alongside with in other projects, invited over for dinner, attended other functions with, and shared life. These artists are where they are due to some of the opportunities  provided to them by Artfields. So, yes I would highly recommend artists participate.

Clare Gemima: You revealed some ideas for a future project that leans more towards participatory and ritualistic performance art than painting or sculpture. How do you foresee the changes in your work’s trajectory moving forward throughout 2024, especially now that Dancing with the Masks has finally been realized. 

Masela Nkolo: I'm a multidisciplinary artist and don't feel like I'm in a box. I have the freedom to represent  the same body of work through different perspectives and angles. This year you will see the same work, just expressed through different mediums and emotions.  

My future project, Ubuntu, Kizoba zoba, is a body of work - a new collection of masks and garments. It is a one night fashion exploratory performance with music, in which performers are going to act “crazy" dressed in multiple palettes of wearable masks and futurist costumes. 

Essentially, the collection will be a mixture of mediums and ideas reflective of my own personal experiences that have been influenced by Congolese cultural and societal issues. The interests behind my creative practice stem from a desire to connect my Congolese heritage to fashion. This research explores and honors a variety of shared and overlooked practices in order to visually speak to a contemporary sense of cultural hybridity. WM


Clare Gemima

Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.

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