Artist and curator SOL ‘SAX deconstructs the mask as an agent of social change in Masqueraders Are the Ancestors of Protestors, a tight and pithy show at IMC Lab + Gallery. Masks and costumes, an ageless, transcultural phenomena originate as play in early childhood and continue as ritual all the way up to, and beyond, death. Anthropomorphic masks reflecting the bearer’s identity are an essential component of animist traditions. Masking is not done to dismiss, mimic, or ignore the “other,” but as a means to alchemize the way the self and the sacred are understood within their respective communities. ‘SAX believes masks are more than a “tool of anonymity to attack outsiders.” Indeed, in their earliest incarnations, they were used as visual aids to invoke and honor ancestors.
Some of the pieces included in the show reference the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat’s early “Samo” painting phase, the 19th century Voodoo queen of New Orleans Marie Laveau, the Hindu god of destruction Shiva, the Aztec calendar, and the god Egungun from the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria. Each of these could span a lengthy treatise all by themselves, and the show reads like a provocative tastings menu at a small, discrete restaurant. Using electronic and non electronic means the three highlighted artists illustrate its picante depth.
‘SAX’s own work references the traditions of West and Central Africa. His photo collage DogOn Protestor series creates masks that merge traditional Dogon ancestral masks of West Africa with protest signs for the Civil Rights era. Nonviolence becomes an indicator of spiritual and cultural rights reframed within the fractious environment of the mid-twentieth century civil rights movement. In that sense performance, politics and spirituality merge. “The Flag of SAMO SOL,” merges the identities of Basquiat, (SAMO) SAX, and Egungun. This implies the artist Basquiat is akin to Egungun, who is aking to ‘SAX, making all three share a covert mutuality that has root in the Yoruba tradition. It is from this masking and merging of identities that the power of imagery and symbol is redistributed and shared.
Firelei Báez’s “CPT Symmetry (Echoing Marie Laveau manipulations of the elusive mirror image of matter)” resonates with tremendous cultural significance, once the signifiers are identified. Báez uses the Gelee West African headdress, morphing it onto the Tignon headdress worn by women in New Orleans. The Tignon was actually a coded sign of cultural resistance. At one time all women of Creole descent had to wear head wraps to identify their ethnicity. A Tignon, similar to Gelee women’s head wrap, was a double entendre. Creole women turned it into camouflage and protest in that it appeared European in character, but was actually African. This type of disguised protest had roots in the synchronization that occured when African slaves were brought into contact with the Christian experience of God in the Americas. Unable to worship their traditional deities, they appeared outwardly to adopt the religion of their slave owners, while covertly using the symbols of their own heritage.
Saya Woolfalk travels the world constructing female characters she calls “Empathetics,” who use empathy as a tool to heal the pain of colonial globalization, European supremacy, and patriarchy. In “Chimera” (2013), with the programming help of James Tunick and the IMC Lab, she has created a figure that uses your own eye to stare back at you. It does this by using a Kinect to capture an image of your eye when you are looking at the piece, then projects it onto the space occupied by the Chimera’s eye.
There is a sense within all of these works of summoning, i.e. of using one form of visual representation to lead to an implied form of representation actionable in time. In that sense duration and the empheral co-mingle, as one substitutes for the other. Coded messages, using the simple device of masking, take on implications that are more powerful then the original objects or images themselves could ever be.
Masqueraders Are The Ancestors Of Protestors continues through June 27 at the IMC Lab + Gallery (56 West 22nd Street, 6th Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan).