Whether sequestered behind glass in a museum or sold to tourists along Fifth Avenue, the African mask is an image from the non-Western world that we are all familiar with. Yet walking though the African art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the other day, I felt somewhat disconnected from the African mask. Severed from its intended use for performance and ceremonies, the mask as it is presented in the museum becomes an ambiguous object. Does the mask still have relevance when removed from its cultural context? Can we appreciate it for just its form? Is it art or artifact?
The answers to some of these questions may lie just steps away in a hallway
adjacent to the Met’s African galleries. “Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the
Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents”, now on view,
makes a resounding argument for the African mask as art. The show tackles the
enduring influence of African masks on contemporary artists, a theme emphasized
by the very location of the exhibit. Sandwiched between the modern art galleries
and the rooms dedicated to African, Oceania, and the Americas on the Met’s first
floor, “Odes to the Mask” offers innovative reinterpretations of the African trope
that transform the mask from an isolated artifact into a canvas for creativity and
social critiques. The exhibit charts a short journey for visitors, with only 14 works by
five different artists. With a lot more pop and vibrancy than some of the Met’s more
conservative galleries, “Odes to the Mask” is a breath of fresh air.
The exhibit opens with a photograph by Man Ray (above) that speaks volumes about the obsession with “going native” that flooded Europe in the early 20th century. During the
Primitivism movement, artists such as Picasso and Matisse used their new exposure
to exotic African goods as inspiration for their own experiments in Cubism and
abstraction. Although Man Ray is a member of the later Surrealist movement, his
work Noire et Blanche expresses the same fascination these artists had with the
simplistic forms and aesthetic purity of the African mask. Placed next to the serene
face of Man Ray’s mistress Kiki, the mask is the mirror image of her beauty distilled
Following somewhat in Man Ray’s footsteps, Lynda Benglis also hones in on the mask’s stylistic virtue with her recreations. Using glass as her medium, Benglis mimics the shape of a Fang ngli mask she bought from a street vendor in front of the Whitney. On picking her mask inspiration the artist notes, “ I thought that I would choose the images that for me were very pure statements and transpose them into my feeling about their beauty.”
Fortunately the exhibit moves past viewing the mask from solely a Westernized
aesthetic point of view. In fact the majority of works displayed in “Ode to the Mask”
offer social and political commentary that leave visitors with a lot more to chew on
than just the mask’s visual appeal. Benin artist Romuald Hazoumé investigates some
of Africa’s heavy political issues with a dash of dark humor. He constructs his masks
out of gasoline canisters that litter the streets of Porto-Novo and are used to illegally
transport pertrol from Nigeria to Benin. The work’s subject matter may be a serious
one, but Hazoumé is also quite the prankster—the Met’s wall text notes that the
artist “relishes the irony of sending discarded matter back to Europe and the United
States through his creations.”
Hazoumé’s subtle playfulness sparkles in works like Ibedji (No. 1 and 2) Twins, which allude to the reverence for twins among the Yoruba people. The comical rendering of faces as matching canisters suggests that the can has replaced twins as the new prized possession of Yoruba culture in Benin.
While Twins directly references African life, Hazoumé’s other works cross cultural boundaries to explore the archetypal personalities of Generation Y. Ear Splitting, created for the Liverpool Biennial in 1999, looks like a trendy hipster traipsing down the streets of Brooklyn with huge headphones in tow, while Internet (1997) is the neurotic computer geek, sprouting Ethernet cords for hair. These are the masks of modern-day spirits; an ode to the new icons of Western culture and consumerism that have invaded African society.
Fellow Beninese artist and blacksmith Calixte Dakpogan and African American artist Willie Cole push the modernization of the mask even further with a hodgepodge of readymade objects that would make Duchamp salivate. In Dakpogan’s masks, cassette tapes are the lazy eyes of a drunk man, flip-flops transform into ears, and forks act as teeth.
Similarly, Cole turns American products African with works like Shine (2007) that renders a common male mask from Côte d’Ivoire in black high-heeled shoes. With heels poking upright, the shoes look more like shiny weapons, allowing us to see these icons of femininity in a new and somewhat terrifying light.
After taking in the modern interventions of these five artists, I journeyed back to the main African art gallery to reconsider the conventional mask. With a new narrative for the mask in mind, I saw these pieces with fresh eyes. Rather than a mute relic, the masks rang with both the potency of African tradition and the possibilities to constantly revise and rework that tradition. As all artists in “Ode to the Mask” show, the mask continues to be relevant today both as a cultural artifact and as an evolving and commentative work of art.