It seems no museum collection is complete without a few token African masks. Many of us have glimpsed them walking between exhibits, but few of us know what role they actually play to the many cultures on the continent that adopt them.
Why, for instance, do members of Malawi's Nyau society dance around in an Elvis Presley disguise?
The Brooklyn Museum in New York is looking to fill in the gaps with its new exhibition, Disguise: Masks and Global African Art.
"Masks have long been used by African artists to define relationships―between individuals, communities, the environment, or the cosmos―and, sometimes, to challenge the status quo. However, once masks were removed from their original performance context, they were transformed into museum objects, and their larger messages were often lost," the exhibition blurb reads.
Masks = social commentary
According to the museum's associate curator, Kevin Dumouchelle, many artists use masks and performance to affect change.
"Masquerade has long been a tool for African artists to expose hidden issues and to challenge the status quo," he argues.
"The masks physically and functionally disguise, but they allow the wearer to speak to a larger truth. It's a performance that's not about the individual, but the role that they're playing in their community, or a ritual they're re-enacting."
In 2010, photographer Vlad Sokhin gained rare access to the rituals and practices of the Nyau brotherhood, a secret society of the Chewa people that exists in communities in Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. He reveals how he managed to infiltrate, and ultimately join, this secret group. Photographs by Vlad Sokhin. Credit: Vlad Sokhin
The larger truths Dumouchelle cites are various. Racism, corruption and homophobia are addressed by contemporary artists -- issues, he suggests that "aren't always on the surface in public discourse today," but can be confronted "through the language of art in a way that is perhaps a bit more truthful."
For instance, the Nyau incorporate masks and dance in spiritual rituals, including "morality plays." When a member wears an Elvis Presley costume, he is making a statement about the outsider in modern society (The King was just the latest incarnation of a role previously occupied by Arab slavers, British colonial administrators and Charlie Chaplin).
The new exhibit also invites contemporary artists join the fray and use masks to make comment on modern issues. Saya Woolfalk, an artist of Japanese and African American decent, for example, ushers viewers into a twenty-first-century dream world in "ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space", an installation complete with mannequins in poses akin to Buddhist monks and, Dumouchelle says, will include performance artists.
"'Disguise' aims to reconnect masks and bodies in performance and to use historical objects to understand twenty-first-century art," he says.
"After all, through masquerade artists can perform the past and invent the future."
"Disguise: Masks and Global African Art" opens on April 29 at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, and runs until September 18.