Things are not always as they first appear: That is a simple way of summing up the idea of disguise, and also Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, now on view at Seattle Art Museum. The show is an international array of artists who have used masks, costume and identity in their work, and at first glance this seems sufficient to tie it together. However, on closer examination, the premise of the show does not hold up, the connections become shallow if not misleading, and what seems to be a carnivalesque celebration becomes merely chaotic….and counterproductive.
The thesis according to the curators: “With Disguise, visitors can see how masks are a catalyst for artists, as they present fresh visions of masquerade and the shared instinct to hide from ourselves and from each other.” This begs numerous questions before it begins to answer any, most saliently the idea that there is a “shared instinct to hide from ourselves and from each other,” which is evasive and culturally biased and misses the point of masquerade, which expands self into other states, does not merely conceal it.
The real framing of Disguise is not really that problematic thesis. It’s the ethnicity of the artists, who are African or of African descent (with one notable exception). The art world’s claims to diversity are generally hollow, and artists of color (and especially women of color) are given scant support and exposure. As one who believes that regionalism is a legitimate frame for looking at art, I think a show from a specific place could be well executed, but an “ethnic” show (such as one that ostensibly tries to sample “Global African Art”) arguably ghettoizes its artists. The all-female Elles show at SAM received this same criticism a few years back. Perhaps the staff, having learned from that blowback, decided on a pretext…and how meta of them to choose disguise.
The pretext of the masks as “catalyst” does no one any favors, as the show is rarely cohesive, betrays a lack of cultural awareness, and even a lack of awareness about how the “catalyst” for the show is treated. The result is a show that undermines the very cultures and traditions that are meant to inspire it. There were clearly good intentions here, so here is the real question on my mind.
How Did it Go Wrong?
To answer that, we actually don’t need to blame the curators entirely. We need to look at the problematic climate in Seattle and beyond, down to the space in which it is displayed.
Let’s start small: The tortuous layout of The Simonyi Special Exhibition Space on the top floor of SAM often makes for shows that feel like a jarring mine car ride, but the curatorial team for Disguise filled the space in a way that feels at least a little more natural and planned, at first. The first rooms are painted and arranged for specific commissioned works by artists, including Jakob Dwight, Brendan Fernandes and Saya Woolfalk. For the most part, these young artists have absorbed the trend in museum shows to produce experiences more than objects. The Experience Music Project at Seattle Center is foundationally an example of that, but its skin-deep focus on pop music and culture makes it an uncritical experience, without insight. Ideally, museums like SAM will dive a little deeper.
That didn’t much happen here, as the curators eschew statements providing context for viewers, who are urged to simply bask in the sensory aspects and draw their own conclusions. “Nuts to all that pedantic, cultural hooey you find at those dusty old reliquaries,” it seems to say. “They were never trustworthy about their representations of minority artists anyways.”
The first museums were coffers for the spoils of empire and colonization, and to this day they serve the dominant culture first and foremost. Any museum show can be critiqued through the lens of issues of race, gender, class and the fallibility of written history—not always because of the work itself, but because of why and how it was chosen and displayed—and this is especially true when the show includes sacred, primitive and postcolonial work. Curators Pamela McClusky and Erika Dalya Massaquoi seem to want to get around that by integrating these objects into new experiences that will grab blithe audiences. McClusky, the curator for African and Oceanic Art for SAM, knows traditional African art, was raised for a time in West Africa. Massaquoi has her ear to the ground for emerging artists from Africa and of African descent, especially those working in new media. They know the challenges, and I can’t help but feel that this show came from a love of these emerging and traditional art forms, and a dissatisfaction with how SAM was treating its own collection of masks.
For years, most of SAM’s masks were sitting in a cramped display that looked more like a rummage sale than a shrine to multiculturalism. One could rationalize this by acknowledging that these objects were not made to be enshrined as mere objects d’arte. They were implements, part of a belief system, a performance, and thus were given a more “organic” setting, rather than isolating them in vitrines like excised tissue under a microscope, far from the living source.
Alas, this show took the display technique from Pier 1 Imports to Party City. SAM proved in its previous show, Indigenous Beauty, that they can do better than this. That show acknowledged problems in the institutional model and enlisted the firsthand input and knowledge of First Nations artists and advocates to guide audiences through it. Many were pleased that audiences were given an earnest, sensitive look at the variety, craft and philosophy of art from many tribes and regions.
Responsible visitors will do their own research and spend time with the work, but the vast majority—curious or not—will need a starting point, and when it comes to the rich history of masquerade worldwide (ostensibly the core of Disguise), there is a cultural divide that needs to be addressed for modern western audiences. We had reason to hope that the African masks would get their due, experts would be called in…but the commissioned artists who responded to these masks seemed to have scant knowledge of or connection to them, and it shows. We can’t expect audiences to get it when the artists themselves apparently don’t.
And yet, during the press preview, the curators seemed ecstatic that the masks were getting a new life (mostly in digital facsimile) throughout Disguise. They are eager to share them with the world, too, as the show will travel to The Brooklyn Museum and the Fowler Museum. This local embarrassment will be bi-coastal next year. But who knows? Because the show is modeled on the trendy “experience vs object” model, perhaps some will be drawn in uncritically, but to the detriment of the artists actually engaging with the traditional “catalysts” for the show and the more universal themes behind them.
What we have here is an identity crisis, one that is apparent throughout our culture—political motives being confused with a more intellectual approach. The well-intentioned curators want to give a venue to a group under-represented in the art world AND elevate traditions and cultures far removed from the art world. It’s given plenty of blinking lights, but somehow the value of both efforts is degraded. Disguise comes off as a foray by SAM into remix culture, the derivative appropriation of existing forms into a novelty that is easy on the senses. It is aggregation rather than curation, filtered here by two criteria: a connection to the African continent (if only ethnicity), and the use of adornment in the work. You can’t provide serious context for that.
I am still recommending the show to those who don’t regularly attend museums (especially people in the tech world) simply because the multimedia, funhouse aspects of it might warm them to more museum experiences in the future—a gateway drug. Meanwhile, I am giving all a few caveats: It’s an example of how museums continue to fail at their job; this show is not respectful to the history and the masks behind it; you won’t learn much from it, so be prepared to do your research afterwards.
Here’s a start.
Enter the Postcolonial Funhouse
The first two artists who get their own rooms in Disguise are Jakob Dwight (born in Alabama, based in NYC) and Brendan Fernandes (born in Kenya, based in Montreal). Both set the tone for the show by struggling to make their work relevant to the masks that are the “catalysts” (more like fodder) provided by the museum. Dwight is disconnected from the culture; Fernandes’ native Kenya does not have a tradition of masks in masquerade.
This at least points out that the masks that “catalyzed” Disguise are not to be treated as monolithic representations of the continent. Some Africans want nothing to do with those masks and don’t care how they are treated. Some Africans would love nothing more than to westernize entirely. Some want a consumer hybrid, claiming traditional motifs only as a surface—a mask, indeed—to anchor one’s identity in the wash of western consumerism, a culture of passing tastes. We see everywhere that multiculturalism in practice under these conditions is not the meshing of culture, but the skinning of one after another so that it may be fetishized and commoditized, until its novelty wears off. It’s Baskin Robbins: plenty of flavors, but essentially the same jejune, processed, frozen stuff. It tends toward a monolithic culture, but the continent has never been monolithic.
Disguise unwittingly becomes a sort of funhouse mirror for postcolonialism and consumerism, not a critique of it. As a whole, the masks and the cultures behind them are reduced to mere shadows. Dwight’s aleatoric works are quite literally shadows shot through with colorful, shifting stripes, using a glitch in digital renderings to fill the silhouettes of several masks with symmetrical patterns. It is pretty to look at, but the mask is just a cut out, an appealing but glib frame, interchangeable with any other vaguely ellipsoid object. It doesn’t add or reveal any numinous quality or make the ancient accessible to 21st century audiences; it only updates the aesthetic, destroying the face and therefore its identity and purpose. This is hardly better than presenting a pricy collection of masks for decorative purposes.
In other cases, the masks are false, disposable trinkets. The question, “What is authentic African?” is posed by the curators regarding the work of Brendan Fernandes in the next room. The question of continental identity could only be scratched by an exhibition magnitudes larger than this one. It is tangentially relevant to the stated thesis of Disguise, but it is also THE question that undermines the unsteady curatorial framework—the race and provenance of the artists. It is not a question they should want to ask, and it is also not the question that comes to mind when visitors enter a room full of fiberglass deer wearing white masks, which are based on a non-existent Kenyan mask marketed to tourists. It’s fakery atop fakery…atop fakery, so the real question that comes to mind is simply, “What?” And the answer is “No.”
Other work by Fernandes that uses fake masks—presented in blinking neon, printed on balloons—addresses succinctly how African symbolism has been appropriated and commoditized, but it does little for the question of “authenticity” outside the museum walls, and nothing to illuminate the question of masks and masquerade, which are—again—not part of the Kenyan tradition.
Indeed, how deep is that tradition of masquerade (cited many times in the literature offered to the press), and what a costume contest it becomes in this show. Masquerade is not the mere disguise of self, but the embodiment of other. This is true even in dramatis personae and commedia dell’arte, but it is fundamental to the rituals, dances and shamanic systems that used such masks as the SAM displays. Even the base form of disguise (as adornment) can draw attention to identity and physical being, making it harder to hide even if one is covered.
The cultural bias on display here is deep. Western media and thought is obsessed with identity and identity politics—othering as a form of oppression, not the embrace of the big Other. This is symptomatic of our inability to address the alienation within consumer culture, the violent legacy of imperialism that continues beyond our borders, and divides of racism and classism. For some, the fear is even that a minority might be “passing” among the majority. Where does one draw the line? How are we to be categorized? Race, gender, class: How are we to stand out (safely), be authentic (consistently), be unique and also a part of something?
These are political concerns made into existential crises by narcissism, a pathological need for taxonomy and a fetish for novelty. Such concerns are cultural, not innate, hence the bias of the show and the exhaustion of these subjects in the art market. In Seattle, progressive politics and a desperate need to come across cool and cosmopolitan—despite our geographic isolation and overwhelming, corporate whiteness—make these concerns a sticking point here that are rarely artfully addressed. Exposure to an alternate mode—even regional, nothing so exotic—might just shake us out of that feedback loop, and so again I lament that there existed an opportunity to face those older traditions of embodiment across the gulf of “self/other,” but it was squandered.
SAM’s masks are touchstones of that shamanic, encounter with other, which begins and ends on the existential level, not the political. The sacred mystery—that our senses alter our perspectives and vice versa, that our skin is not the boundary of all reality, and there are multitudes beyond it and within it—is accessible to the performer and the witness alike through masquerade.
Sadly, Disguise turns its few relevant examples into cultural tourism—the work of Jean-Claude Moschetti most saliently. Moschetti as a person is a fascinating study in the flux of identity across continents, between cultures. He is the exception I mentioned earlier: not African by descent or nationality, but a French-born white man who has been one of the few outsiders to be initiated into the mysteries of secret societies in West Africa. He documents in beautiful large-scale photographs the sacred costume, mask and posture of these groups, who—as they see it—bridge the material and spiritual worlds. Even if you are a hard materialist or just a general skeptic, Moschetti’s images feel otherworldly, as a gateway to another mindset, in which the masquerade is central and expansive. Unfortunately, the images in the show are not among his most compelling. There is a surreal darkness, even dread in some of his work, but the composites in Disguise are relatively bland. All the same, the work of Moschetti actually respects the nature of the masks and the broader philosophical or metaphysical questions they ought to inspire.
Nandipha Mntambo’s work approaches race and gender, myth and ritual in a more personal way. The character of the artist is never fully obscured, but she performs multiple roles around the figure of the bull. In the west, the image of the cow is relegated to a bucolic, docile, idyllic landscape, or to meat on the grill. The shift from agrarian life (and even butcher shops) has hidden from sight the ecumenical significance of bovines to civilization. And yet, many Indo-European alphabets—including our own—begin with a letter derived from an image of a bull, as it was a symbol of wealth, fecundity and power. Europa, the first queen of Crete and eponym of Europe, was abducted by Zeus in the form of a majestic white bull. Monstrous bulls are common in the myths, including the minotaur, whose dual nature bridges the animal and human realm, the human form given over to bruteness. The bull fights of Spain continue to pit man against brute in a—I’ll say it—barbaric form of pageantry. Mntambo references all of this in busts, photos, drawings and sculpture, allowing herself to slip between roles, sexes and species while also calling into questioning common perceptions of race and its origins. It nods to ancients while being truly multicultural. Does it fit the thesis or make sense with the other work? Not really.
Walter Oltmann’s work is already in the permanent collection at SAM, but two new pieces have been commissioned: helmets woven from razor wire. Oltmann, like Mntambo, is South African, and his work also fuses man and animal (namely caterpillars). Themes of death and metamorphosis pervade Oltmann’s work. At the root of both concepts there is transformation and the loss of self. But metamorphosis has a natural softness to it—the larva, the pupa, the teneral imago—while death can go either way—the gentle fade into oblivion and putrefaction, the hard and bitter pain in extremis. Oltmann’s prickly, paralytic mails and helmets conjure total hostility between the self (within) and the world—and yet they are so exquisite in form they allure all the same. A lot can be read into this. If any works in the show indicate a need to “hide from ourselves and each other,” it might be these. Oltmann no doubt witnessed this as a white South African during apartheid and after.
Saya Woolfalk’s mixed lineage places her at the intersection of multiple cultures (black, white and Asian). Mixed lineage may bestow the status of “permanent outsider” rather than granting access to everything. I cannot know Woolfalk’s experiences, but she has managed to develop a practice that bypasses exploitative aspects of (Neoliberal) multiculturalism. Inspired by science fiction she invents her own races and species. Entire narratives, cultures and rituals are constructed, and through textile, projection, sculpture and performance she gives them a temporary life. Her Empathic race is naturally shamanic—capable of visualizing, experiencing and even altering the emotions of others. The aesthetics of the costumes and sets are simultaneously foreign and familiar. Woolfalk’s installation (also adjacent to Mntambo) is certainly the most dazzling display of the show, and it provides “a fresh vision of masquerade” supported by a narrative written on the wall.
Information is the visitor’s friend, but in short supply here. At the end of the exhibit, a vinyl makes clear the identity of 72 faces, peering out from embellished handkerchiefs: They are victims of a disastrous 2010 drug raid in Kingston, Jamaica that claimed 72 lives in the attempt to arrest one drug dealer by US and Jamaican forces. Ebony Patterson’s embroidered, varicolored display respectfully commemorates the dead, allowing us to see their eyes above handkerchiefs obscuring the rest of their face. These souls were criminalized and dehumanized in the deadly fray, ostensibly in the name of justice and a greater good. Did they and their community reap the benefits the greater good? They reaped only the whirlwind, sown by a war started far from their homes. This is a shroud for a community (and many like it), made of many souls, unique yet part of a whole, certainly part of our broader humanity…which is more than one can say about its place in that far, scatter-shot room of Disguise.
This was a rare opportunity to disrupt postcolonial and strictly political narratives and even access some darker, existential territory. Because it suggests that it has attempted this, then marginalizes even the more successful works included in the show and the masks themselves, it is worse than a missed opportunity. In Disguise, the mask loses the alternate realities within it and becomes an eyeless fixture.
Literally. In a final, galling display, replicas of the masks are mounted on mirrors, allowing visitors to take selfies as if they are wearing the masks. The postcolonial funhouse is complete. It’s a perfect symbol of the whole show, the whole exercise of surface culture: One needn’t even wear the mask to achieve the appearance of it. You are mashed up, remixed with it in a flat image. You see yourself, adorned, whimsically decorated. But you don’t see through the eyes of another, you don’t acquire a new perspective, you don’t get to learn what it is like to be behind the mask. And apparently, if we expect to find that sort of experience here, then we don’t deserve to.
Disguise: Masks and Global African Art is on display at SAM downtown through September 7.
You can for now see more, fascinating work from Jean-Claude Moschetti (not incidentally, more relevant to SAM’s purported premise) at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery just down the street (608 2nd Ave).