Friday, March 11, 2011

Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents

A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art examines the influence of the African mask on modern and contemporary art.

Works featured in this installation are highly creative imaginings of the iconic form of the African mask. The installation is a collaboration between the Museum's departments of Nineteenth Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art and Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

In many world cultures masks allow performers to adopt a wide range of characters and emotions. They can take on an endless variety of forms: human or animal; sacred or profane; dramatic or comedic. They are not meant to be experienced in isolation but rather as an integral component of celebrations, from the epic cultures to Dogon elders in Mali to popular holidays such as Halloween or Day of the Dead and numerous Mardi Gras carnivals held throughout Europe and Latin America.

It is well known that African art forms, most notably the mask, were a source of inspiration for modern artists such as Pablo Picasso, Andre Derain, and Henri Matisse in the early 20th century. The aesthetic of the African mask thus contributed to a redefinition of the Western visual lexicon. Considered especially alluring were its accessible reimagining of the human face and its aura of inscrutability.

This selection of works from Africa, Europe and the United States attests to the enduring relevance of the African mask in modern and contemporary art. The five artists represented here - Lynda Benglis, Willie Cole, Calixte Dakpogan, Romuald Hazoume, and Man Ray - have all used the African mask as a catalyst for creative exploration. Their works reflect on a century of viewing the mask as a disembodied form - that is, as an object in a museum removed from its original performative context.

African masks are often thought of as carved wooden artifacts, but they are an inherently complex and dynamic art form: to fully appreciate them, one must view them in motion, animated by costumes, dance and music; the various media added to their surfaces are thought to imbue them with mystical powers; and the influence of foreign materials and techniques have led to a continuous redefinition of the genre.

Responding to the sheer physicality of the mask while alluding to its spiritual quality, each of the works in this exhibition pays tribute to the powerful legacy of the African mask and its infinite potential for reinvention.

The exhibition opened on March 8th and will be on display on the 1st floor gallery between the Michael C. Rockefeller and Lila Acheson Wallace wings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art website
Image: Portait Mask (Gba gba), Cote d'Ivoire, Baule peoples, before 1913. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Adrienne Minassian, 1997

Man Ray, "Noire et Blanche" 1926
Gelatin silver print, 8.75 x 10.75 inches
Private Collection, New York
Romald Hazoume, "Ibedji (Nos. 1 and 2) Twins" 1992
plastic can, raffia, cowries and acrylic, 16.5 x 11.75 x 3.875 inches
courtesy CAAC - The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva