Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 30, 2017
Pamela McClusky and Erika Dalya Massaquoi Disguise: Masks and Global African Art Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 104 pp.; 80 color ills. Cloth $40.00 (9780300208740)
Exhibition schedule: Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, June 18–September 7, 2015; Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, October 18, 2015–March 13, 2016; Brooklyn Museum, New York, April 29–September 18, 2016

How do African cultural traditions circulate and influence global contemporary art? Many artists and scholars have argued for the importance of African art (or what they have understood as African art, regardless of authenticity or provenance) in the development of European and American modernism, typically without much consideration for African artists themselves. Pamela McClusky and Erika Dalya Massaquoi, curators of Disguise: Masks and Global African Art and authors of the catalogue of the same title, argue that the artists of “global Africa” have begun to address this issue, changing how we understand African art. McClusky writes that “global African art” is defined by artists “from Africa or of African descent” who have become central participants in the international discourse of contemporary art (21). They engage with what people throughout Africa and around the world have come to think of as African art, even if it is sometimes still an exoticizing fiction. If European and U.S. artists and art critics have sometimes traded in fantasies of African masks, the artists of global Africa have developed their own practices in response to this history, such as reengaging with masquerade.

While neither curator explains the concept of global Africa, McClusky’s three brief catalogue essays, Massaquoi’s short interview, and their selection of artists and artworks provide clues. Previous scholars and exhibitions have theorized global Africa in terms of the processes and structures of global trade, travel, and artistic and cultural discourse. For example, Lowery Stokes Sims and Leslie King-Hammond organized the 2010 exhibition The Global Africa Project around themes of “intersecting cultures,” “competing globally,” “sourcing locally,” “transforming traditions,” “building communities,” and “branding content” (“The Global Africa Project: Contemporary Design, Craft, and Art,” The Global Africa Project, New York: Museum of Arts and Design, 2010, 14). McClusky and Massaquoi explore some of this terrain, albeit without the sort of thorough explanation Sims and King-Hammond provide. Instead, they make their case primarily through the work of ten artists, eight of whom they commissioned to make new installations for Disguise. Each artist is represented in the catalogue by a written statement and photographs of his or her work. The curators supplement these images and texts with selected “masquerade-related works by other international artists” (21) and African masks from the Seattle Art Museum’s collection.

McClusky describes the premise behind the selection of artists in the catalogue’s final essay, “Meet Me Where the Masks Are Alive and the Spirits Roam Free.” She discusses her experience of a performance by Alejandro Guzman as an example of how a bewildering encounter with a “creator in disguise” (76) might serve as catalyst for the viewer’s own productively “creative misunderstandings” (83). To explain her faith in the masquerade, McClusky summarizes Patrick McNaughton’s analysis of the transformative potential the unexpected spectacle of performance can have for viewers (78) and muses on ways Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) might have turned out differently had Pablo Picasso witnessed African masquerades instead of seeing masks outside their original contexts (78–80). These examples enable McClusky to explain the significance of both masquerade traditions and their appropriations. She and Massaquoi touch on these ideas elsewhere in the catalogue but rely primarily on the artists to explore the implications.

Zina Saro-Wiwa describes a series of experiences with African masquerade traditions she encountered on her travels to three continents. She reflects on a child’s description of “threatening” African masks at the Brooklyn Museum, her first “exhilarating” experience of Ogele masquerade in Nigeria, the “seismic . . . feminine power and energy” running through women with whom she discussed initiating a masquerade in her ancestral village, watching Brazilians who made her think about a Niger Delta ethnic group that makes thieves “dance their demons,” and finally “getting inside the masquerade” in Nigeria where a carver “found my tree” from which “my mask will be hewn” (48; emphasis in original). Better than any author in the catalogue, Saro-Wiwa captures the complete imbrication of African art into global contemporary art. Saro-Wiwa’s diaristic narrative represents a globe-trotting practice and the international circulation of her project, in contrast to McClusky who describes it primarily in local terms (72).

Walter Oltmann explains his artworks as even more direct articulations of globalization’s networks of trade and cultural encounter. His wire sculptures look like models for costumes or armor, a postmodern pastiche of historical, contemporary, and futuristic forms, among them a sixteenth-century Nigerian ivory carving of a Portuguese explorer, a weaving from the KwaZulu-Natal area, and metal wire retaining walls and fences of Johannesburg mine dumps, the very fabric of globalization (40).

One premise of Disguise is that artists who reference African masquerade traditions, regardless of how well they understand them, contribute to defining global African art, perhaps through the previously mentioned creative misunderstandings. On the one hand, McClusky recognizes the value of understanding the purpose, creation, and use of masks. On the other, she notes the Disguise artists may know little about the African traditions of masquerade they reference. Some base their work on “masquerades they had witnessed in Africa,” while others “studied . . . video documentation” or drew on “African masks from the [Seattle Art Museum’s] collection” (21). For example, Sam Vernon explains that she based the collaged, black-and-white forms of her installation How Ghosts Sleep (Seattle) (2015) on both African art and early twentieth-century American artworks inspired by African art: an Ekpo mask, “the triangular pattern of the ceremonial costumes in the . . . Museum’s collection,” and Aaron Douglas’s book illustrations (24). Saya Woolfalk writes that her installation ChimaTEK: Avatar Download Station and Virtual Chimeric Space (2015) incorporates her “recent research into Sowei masks” and fascination with “the proliferation of human-animal-bird hybrids” in the museum’s African art collection (52). In the catalogue, a Sowei mask from the museum is reproduced opposite one of Woolfalk’s preliminary renderings of figures wearing beautiful, new, fancifully colorful versions. In the work of some of the artists, even a direct reference to any particular African tradition appears unnecessary. Discussing Jacolby Satterwhite’s work, McClusky, Massaquoi, and Satterwhite himself make no mention of African culture (72, 68, 58). His work represents one possibility for the art of global Africa: that its role in a global discourse of art is of greater significance than the specific ways it might draw on African masquerade.

Disguise raises the question of who the artists of global Africa are. The curators build on ideas of contemporary African art that acknowledge the global circulation of artists, exhibiting the work of artists living in Africa alongside work by those living outside of the continent. While this framing has been reflected in earlier exhibitions such as Flow, organized by Christine Y. Kim for the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2008, McClusky and Massaquoi go further. Because they incorporate the global circulation of ideas about Africa into the concept of global Africa, they can also include artists of the African diaspora in Disguise. Thus, of the ten artists whose installations McClusky and Massaquoi chose to feature, three are from Nigeria or South Africa, three identify with Nigeria or Kenya plus nations outside Africa, and four are African Americans. According to Massaquoi, “the artists merit authority as essential witnesses of diaspora experience,” explaining cursorily, “their work . . . provides proof of experiences and difficult histories that are being reinterpreted and revised” (68). Given that previous scholars have drawn distinctions between global Africa and the diaspora, it is unfortunate that Massaquoi does not explain how she understands these ideas to be related.

The curators do not go so far as to include artists whose work responds to African art who are not themselves African or of African descent, even though doing so might seem the logical conclusion of their argument about African art’s global construction. There is precedent for such inclusivity: Sims and King-Hammond gestured toward this more expansive approach by including Keith Haring and others in The Global Africa Project. Aware that not all African artists are of African descent, McClusky and Massaquoi include Golgotha (2007–9), a New York City performance by Steven Cohen, a white South African, in Disguise. The performance is represented by a posed studio photograph of Cohen in costume, which is identified as a digital print titled Golgotha in the catalogue checklist. McClusky notes Cohen’s work concerns “the paradoxes of [global] exchange” (73). The curators might have extended such inclusivity further to better illustrate these paradoxes.

McClusky and Massaquoi develop a discursive concept of global Africa adequately expansive to be understood as critically addressing questions of authenticity or representativeness in global African art. For example, in his statement Brendan Fernandes writes about creating artworks that articulate feelings of loss and distance from Kenya. He describes his installation Neo Primitivism 2 (2007–14) as a response to finding “African” masks for sale that had been carved “in storage units outside the city,” referring to New York City (30). Further, the masks served as “memento[s] of a ‘real New York City experience’ and . . . not like any ‘real Kenyan experience’” (ibid.). In the installation, Fernandes arranged deer decoys wearing plastic replicas of one of the masks throughout a painted-green room decorated with the silhouettes of spears. He created an ersatz Kenya as if to demonstrate that the impulse to re-create a “real Kenyan experience” (ibid.) is part of the process of adapting to a new home. Fernandes, like several of the other artists in Disguise, explores how African art continues to circulate through processes of globalization that redefine it and, in turn, create situations in which masks serve new needs.

Several of the exhibition’s artists employ masks as a means of interfacing with globalization. In some cases, the mask serves to articulate difference and distance, as in Fernandes’s work. Other artists use masks and masquerade to demonstrate the necessity and difficulty of transnational or intercultural exchange. Given that the artists in Disguise grapple with such far-reaching ideas, the catalogue seems slim. Its title identifies global African art as one of the exhibition’s principle themes although neither curator addresses globalization. McClusky links the mask and disguise to African masquerade traditions and states that each artist “has a history of involvement with disguise in one form or another” (21), as if the artists of global Africa, as a rule, draw on African masquerade. The curatorial and editorial choice to feature the artists’ explanations of their own work is both rewarding and risky. It creates the possibility for unwittingly essentializing the connection between the artists of global Africa and African traditions of masquerade. Importantly, the curatorial and editorial choice to feature the artists’ explanations of their own work allows the artists to provide evidence of a broad range of critical practices for making art under the conditions of globalization. The catalogue succeeds most when the artists write of the complexities of engaging with African culture in a world deeply influenced by its legacy and saturated with exoticizing misconceptions.

John P. Bowles
Associate Professor, Department of Art, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Note: My colleague Carol Magee conducted an interview with the artist Emeka Ogboh from which some or all of his statement in the catalogue is drawn. I do not write about Ogboh’s statement or art and did not discuss the catalogue with Magee while writing this review.