On view at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) through September 7, Disguise: Masks and Global African Art provides an updated look at 21st-century evolutions of the mask and explores contemporary forms of disguise.
Organized by SAM, Disguise will travel to the Fowler Museum at UCLA from October 18, 2015 to March 13, 2016 and to the Brooklyn Museum from April 29 to September 18, 2016.
“In this era of innovation, when digital culture is upending our visual framework, artists are reinventing form in an ever-expanding choice of mediums,” says Kimerly Rorschach, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO. “With Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, the Seattle Art Museum’s important collection of masks has become a catalyst for artists, encouraging them to present fresh visions of masquerade and the shared instinct to hide from ourselves and from each other.”
Older forms of masks in wood and fiber are now joined by masks that stream with video glitches, take a role in immersive environments or launch into space in virtual reality. With Disguise, visitors can see how masks are a catalyst for artists, as they present fresh visions of masquerade and the shared instinct to hide from ourselves and from each other.
For this exhibition, SAM’s Curator of African and Oceanic Art Pamela McClusky, and Consultant Curator Erika Dalya Massaquoi sought out contemporary artists from Africa and of African descent to create new installations, visions, and sounds for the exhibition. These artists fill the galleries with inventive avatars and provocative new myths, taking us on mysterious journeys through city streets and futuristic landscapes. Ten artists are each given a gallery to fill, many with works commissioned just for this exhibition. Fourteen other artists have singular works or series on view.
“While masks were exported in vast quantities to become a signature art form representing the African continent in the 20th century, masquerades were left behind,” says McClusky. “Disguise attempts to bridge the gap between the mask observed in isolation and the masquerade experienced as a catalyst.”
"Throughout the exhibition genres are blurred,” says Massaquoi. “This blurring forces audiences to shift their attentions back and forth between multiple narratives and ways of storytelling. These alternating perspectives will
hopefully raise a lot of questions for spectators: What is being told? How is it being told? From whose perspective? Museum goers are challenged to query their frames of reference.”
One artist is composing a soundtrack to set a base pulse. Performance commissions are prominent in the exhibition, showcasing disguises being enacted in city streets, in forests, and in museum galleries. Two women have
enacted and documented their own masquerades in Nigeria. Several artists are coming to Seattle to install their contributions—one will unleash a herd of fake animals wearing fake masks, while another will stage the visit of a new species, come to impart wisdom about human and animal relations.
“Lighted imagery and information share an affinity with the human brain.” Jakob Dwight
Jakob Dwight (1977) is a painter, media and light artist living and working in New York City and was born in Mobile, Alabama. The aesthetic of Dwight’s Autonomous Prism series is based on a digital glitch that he found and replicates to render electronic interpretations of African masks in the Seattle Art Museum’s collection. Dwight opens the exhibition with a series that illustrates the shift from the 20th to the 21st century mask. Taking the masks in the museum’s collection that have been static references of past lives, he has electronically reconfigured their silhouettes into faces that pulse with light.
. . . to show how we keep the fake idea of the primitive alive.” Brendan Fernandes
Brendan Fernandes (1979) is a Canadian artist of Kenyan and Indian descent. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, he lives and works in Brooklyn and Toronto. Masquerades require a disruptor, which in Disguise’s Neo Primitivism 2 piece comes in the form of a herd of deer that wander around wearing white resin replicas of an identical mask. This incongruous safari sets off an investigation by Fernandes into the absurdity of clichés assigned to African realities. The question “What is ‘authentic African?’ ” resonates throughout his neon signs, totems, drawings, balloons, and a performance video that compares dances and gestures of French ballet with African masquerade.
“I think we all have a dark, animalistic side of ourselves.” Nandipha Mntambo
Nandipha Mntambo (1982) is a South African artist who is known for her sculptures, videos and photographs that redirect human and animal relationships. In her art, Mntambo does not put on a mask but transforms her face and body into compelling images and challenging performances. Her 2008 photograph, Europa, Mntambo covers her face in hair, with horns pushing out of her head as she confronts us with a reminder of the underlying myth about the origin of Europe. In Praca de Touros III, Mntambo strides into an arena dressed as a matador who goes to battle with a phantom version of herself. It is a startling blend: her face with a bull’s face, her body with a cow’s hide, and her aggression with that of a bullfighter.
“I want to interrupt someone’s daily journey with something different.” Wura-Natasha Ogunji
Wura-Natasha Ogunji is a visual artist and performer born in St. Louis (1970). She currently lives and works in Austin, Texas and Lagos, Nigeria. Her works include videos in which she engages her body in explorations of movement and mark-making across water, land, and air. Having steadily enlarged her scope of performance in recent years, she proposed a new form of masquerade based on a heritage that had, until now, been the prerogative of men only. Inventing her own process and adapting parts of a male performance for a female agenda, Ogunji began addressing audiences on the streets of Lagos with her troupe of women, who coordinate their masquerades to raise issues on their own terms. As she describes it: “I want people to stop, to witness, to comment on the work or ask questions because they feel drawn to it, pulled by it in a way that expands the imagination.”
“I map the desires and ideas of people to create narratives . . .” Saya Woolfalk
Saya Woolfalk, was born in Gifu City, Japan (1979) and is known for her multimedia exploration of hybridity, science, race, and sex. Having invented an entirely new virtual population, the Empathics, Saya Woolfalk invites her visionaries to chronicle their alternative view of the universe. For this exhibition, the Empathics have decided to give new life to masks in the museum’s collection in what Woolfalk calls “a site-specific installation that blends the real with the fantastical.” Masks that have been without bodies for many years are given their own music, movements, and environment, releasing them from confinement in a conventional museum display.
“It’s a different kind of holy ground . . .” Emeka Ogboh
Emeka Ogboh is a Nigerian artist, whose works contemplates broad notions of listening. Born and raised in Lagos (1977), Ogboh works primarily with sound and video to explore ways of understanding cities as cosmopolitan spaces with their unique characters. Stepping over the threshold into the Disguise exhibition will trigger an overture of sounds. This composition created by Ogboh acknowledges the acoustical complexity of masquerades, which rely on songs, instrumental accents, proclamations, subtle cues for performers, and streams of audience reactions. Inventing a score that complements the gathering of artists in Disguise, Ogboh has gone on a search for recordings of masquerades and particularly for older instruments that trigger memories. His tracks will serve as a sensory guide to the tension that builds as the performance gathers in intensity and dissolves at its conclusion.
“In this way we are forced to identify with the other . . .” Walter Oltmann
Walter Oltmann was born (1960) in Rustenburg, Gauteng South Africa and lives and works in Johannesburg. Wire is Oltmann’s main medium for making sculptural works and he manipulates it using the linear quality of wire to create forms and surfaces through techniques that parallel handcrafts. He creates drawings and sculpture that capture a unique metamorphosis—one inspired by Franz Kafka’s famous novella about a man who wakes up transformed into a cockroach. Insects have rarely been given such a starring role in sculpture and have never before shared the pedestal with humans in quite this way. At one moment, these sculptures convey the stance of a European wearing his padded waistcoat and codpiece; then, in the next moment, his clothes begin to bristle with the hairs of a caterpillar.
“By not having a face, I become a prop in the space.” Jacolby Satterwhite
Artist Jacolby Satterwhite makes virtual masquerades that guide viewers into brave new worlds where the past and the future play with each other. Born (1986) in Columbia, South Carolina, Satterwhite currently lives and works in New York. His own personal references are laced into a matrix of animated scenarios that are loaded with dazzling details of wonderlands, orifices, and structures, all constantly morphing. Each of Satterwhite’s videos offers a lesson plan for what to do when the apocalypse arrives, how to dance as a forest nymph, how to overcome the confusion of childhood memories, and how to savor the sense of spinning into infinity.
“…when the mask is presented as technology, it encroaches on the spiritual and becomes chimerical…” Sam Vernon
For the entrance to Disguise, Sam Vernon’s (born 1987) black-and-white walls create an indirect view of a world in which masks hide, along with other sly figures who avoid both the spotlight and any clear definition. She fits her shapes and silhouettes into a membrane of cells that punctuate the walls, fracturing each cell into a maze of oblique references. Hinting at hidden worlds and mystical experiences, Vernon will also create a stunning immersive environment for visitors at the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park called Sam Vernon: How Ghosts Sleep (Seattle) emphasizing the connection between the two facilities.
“I stopped wondering about how African masks are valued in the West and have chosen to explore their value for me…” Zina Saro-Wiwa
Zina Saro-Wiwa is a British-Nigerian video artist and film-maker who was born in Nigeria (1976). Returning to the Niger Delta in 2013, Saro-Wiwa began a journey of cultural discovery. She went in search of masquerade culture in her native tribal land Ogoniland and came across a modern form of masquerade started in the late 1980s called Ogele. A masquerade featuring a heavy, tiered mask which told stories. Stories about modern day politics as well as animist deities. Inspired by this modern form of masquerade Saro-Wiwa decided to create a mask and all-female masquerade group for herself. For Disguise Saro-Wiwa presents the mask she designed called “The Invisible Man” which explores her own personal demon. This neo-Ogoni mask is a document of loss. It depicts the men that have disappeared in her life - her father, her brother amongst them - and the photos, video and sound installation she will present at Seattle explore the tension between invisibility and weight. The invisibility of the men that disappeared and the weight of this knowledge. The literal and emotional loads women carry on their heads in Nigeria and elsewhere. Through this exploration she wants to bring African masks to life in a completely fresh way. “I want to bridge the gap I always feel when I go and see African masks in museums. I want emotional connection.”
Disguise will also feature works by: Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou / Nick Cave / Edson Chagas / Steven Cohen / Hasan and Husain Essop / Alejandro Guzman / Gerald Machona / Jean-Claude Moschetti / Toyin Odutola / Ebony G. Patterson / Sondra R. Perry / Paul Anthony Smith / Iké Udé / William Villalongo.
Disguise is accompanied by an illustrated catalog with statements by 10 of the artists featured in the exhibition, an essay by Pamela McClusky and an interview with Erika Dalya Massaquoi. The catalog is co-published by the Seattle Art Museum and Yale University Press.
This exhibition is made possible by donors to the SAM Fund for Special Exhibitions. Presenting Sponsors are ArtsFund, The Boeing Company and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Lead grant provided by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts. Major Sponsors are 4Culture and Seattle Art Museum Supporters (SAMS). Additional support provided by the ADAA Foundation Curatorial Award administered by the Association of Art Museum Curators, Christopher and Alida Latham and contributors to the SAM Fund.
ABOUT SEATTLE ART MUSEUM
As the leading visual art institution in the Pacific Northwest, SAM draws on its global collections, powerful exhibitions, and dynamic programs to provide unique educational resources benefiting the Seattle region, the Pacific Northwest, and beyond. SAM was founded in 1933 with a focus on Asian art. By the late 1980s the museum had outgrown its original home, and in 1991 a new 155,000-square-foot downtown building, designed by Robert Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, opened to the public. The 1933 building was renovated and reopened as the Asian Art Museum. SAM’s desire to further serve its community was realized in 2007 with the opening of two stunning new facilities: the nine-acre Olympic Sculpture Park (designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architects)—a “museum without walls,” free and open to all—and the Allied Works Architecture designed 118,000-square-foot expansion of its main, downtown location, including 232,000 square feet of additional space built for future expansion.
From a strong foundation of Asian art to noteworthy collections of African and Oceanic art, Northwest Coast Native American art, European and American art, and modern and contemporary art, the strength of SAM’s collection of more than 25,000 objects lies in its diversity of media, cultures and time periods.