To enjoy the full Mail & Guardian online experience: please upgrade your browser
05 Jan 2016 10:27
The Invisible Man by Zina Saro-Wiwa. (Zinasarowiwa.com)
“This debt we pay to human guile; with torn and bleeding hearts we smile,” wrote African-American poet Paul Dunbar in his
1896 poem, We Wear the Mask. About 100 years later the Fugees rapped, “Put
the mask upon the face just to make the next day/ Feds be hawkin me, jokers be
stalking me/ I walk the streets and camouflage my identity.”
works, a mask is suggested to confront the indignity and oppression suffered on
a daily basis in an unjust society.
But then there’s the testament of a woman in Nigeria, who
participated in a masquerade as part of artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji ‘s video
experiments on the transformative power of African masks: “Oh my God, it’s
amazing! People moved out of my way.
I could stand there and nobody was going
to do anything to me or ask me for anything.
In a parallel pursuit, fellow Nigerian artist/journalist
Zina Saro-Wiwa sought a more personal form of catharsis after the execution of
her father, author and environmentalist and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa
at the hands of military dictator General Sani Abacha in 1995 . Ogunji and
Saro-Wiwa are just two of the 12 artists featured in Disguise: Masks and Global
African Art at UCLA’s Fowler Museum .
Originating in Seattle and stopping in Los Angeles on its
way to the Brooklyn Museum in April, the new show looks at an ancient form
through the eyes of contemporary African artists, and those of African descent,
working in sculpture, photography, installation art, street action, computers
and virtual reality to explore issues ranging from self-realisation to cultural
and political transformation.
“While they’re all looking at the general field of
African masquerade, they’ve found different elements to draw out of it,”
says the Fowler’s Erica Jones. The wide-ranging show runs from Saya Woolfolk ‘s
imaginary culture of the Empathic – a psychedelic sculpture, paint and
performance installation blending African influences with an array of flavours
east and west of the continent – to artist Nandipha Mntambo in her suit of
lights made from cowhide, caping a bull in an abandoned plaza de toros.
“It illustrates how vibrant masquerade is as a tradition, how malleable it
is. That it’s something that’s been around for thousands of years is a
testament to what an adaptable art form it is.”
Masquerade’s healing powersMasking varies from culture to culture, even in a country as
populous as Nigeria, home to traditions as varied as the Edo in the north and
Yoruba in the south. The spiritual underpinning of many communities, it usually
involves song, dance or acting out ethical quandaries and issues related to the
divine world. In disguises ranging from carved masks to head-to-toe costumes,
the spirit world opens to the masquerader and he becomes the divinity whom he
invokes. The key word is “he”, since it is a tradition that remains
almost exclusively male-dominated, even when calling on female spirits.
Brendan Fernandes’s Neo Primitivism 2. (Facebook/Fowler Museum)
Catharsis came on a more personal level for Saro-Wiwa, who
returned to her Niger Delta homeland of Ogoniland in 2014 after nearly 20 years
in exile following her father’s execution. The journey opened new doors for the
artist when she encountered Ogele, a more recent form of masquerade which began
in the late 1980s. One of the masks bore the likeness of her father, which drew
her deeper into masquerade’s healing powers. She first suggested to the women
of the Ogoni that they should have their own masquerade troupe, and they
heartily embraced the idea. Then she commissioned her own mask with which to
confront the “invisible man” that seemed to follow her around, a
spirit of her tragic familial past.
“For Zina and for Wara, I don’t think they set out to
appropriate the mask. This was something like an evolution that led them to
this,” says Jones, an American-born half-Nigerian, who splits her time
between Texas and Lagos. “As a Yoruba woman she wants to learn about her
own culture and became really interested in Egungun and these mask ancestors.
That’s what led to her wanting to engage in masquerade culture for women.”
For her 2013 video, An Ancestor Takes a Photograph, Ogunji
filmed a half-dozen or so women in Egungun dress, which covered them from head
to toe. Amid the shoppers at a busy Lagos market, there was no way of knowing
they were women. It is considered taboo for masqueraders to address others, so
no one asked. But there were suspicions.
A vehicle for dissent“When you’re in this costume, you can move through the
streets and people move out of your way,” says Ogunji. “There’s a
deep sense of respect, and you can negotiate the streets, you can negotiate
spaces in a way that women don’t experience on a daily basis.”
According to the Kebetkache Women Development and Resource
Center in the embattled Niger Delta, a proliferation of guns and gangs have
signalled a sharp rise in violence against women in the area. Further to the
north, terrorist groups like Boko Haram have become famous for preying on
women. Even in Lagos, where women live free of such violence, there are no
official channels to challenge a patriarchy that routinely denies them their
rights. And so masquerade has emerged as a vehicle for dissent.
“It is really logical that this is a time that women
would look at masquerade and say if this is something that men could use for
gaining and maintaining power, we want access,” says Jones about the
status-raising power of the ritual. “The reason it has remained so vital
for so long is that it is a great form for people to push the boundaries and
make statements about how they feel their culture needs to change.” – (c) Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015
and Global African Art is at UCLA’s Fowler Museum until 13 March.
Create Account | Lost Your Password?