A mask . . . serves both as transformer and transporter. Unadorned, it is a door to another world. Adorned, it is the key that opens that door. And once opened, it transports its wearer through that world as the full embodiment of itself so convincingly that all who see it perceive it as real. As an artist I strive for such mastery.
—Willie Cole (New York City, 2010)
Willie Cole constantly interrogates his African American identity through the innovative use of a variety of unexpected media. Originally a painter, he progressively shifted to explore composite works in the mid-1980s before turning to his current three-dimensional sculptures. His most recent works are assemblages of a single type of common household object he harnesses to evoke more exalted forms. These often reference the African masks and figures he studies in the collections of his local museums, the Newark Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. His own creations reflect his valorization and amplification of those classical genres as art for art's sake. Moved by the spirituality of works from Africa, Cole pays tribute to them through humble material drawn from his own environment. In doing so, he reconfigures something that is far removed from his own culture and personalizes it.
Both Next Kent Tji Wara and Kitchen Tji Wara evoke ci wara (or tji wara) headdresses worn by the Bamana peoples of Mali during danced rites relating to the agricultural cycle. These seminal head piecesó graceful silhouette-like forms defined by alternating negative and positive space ócombine antelope features with those of other animals that are significant within Bamana culture, such as the earth-digging aardvark or the armored pangolin. The sculptural element is worn on top of the head of the dancer, whose body is obscured by a fiber costume ensemble. Examples of such masks, conceived of as male/female pairings, are on view in the Museum's galleries of African art.
As reimagined by Cole, the overall designs of Kitchen Tji Wara and Next Kent Tji Wara are articulated with household objects, including stacked kitchen chairs and sections of a pink bicycle. (See two examples of ci wara headdresses: 1978.412.435; 1978.412.436.)
In Shine, Cole draws upon black high-heeled shoes to create a dense and expressive composite male visage that intrinsically relates to a well-known type of cumulative mask from the Nguere and We peoples of west-central CÙte d'Ivoire. Such masks are characterized by exaggerated features, such as bulging eyes, a projecting jaw, open mouth with exposed teeth, and added protruding appendages. Meant to provide social control, these masks' intimidating features are further enhanced by a variety of animal and vegetal matter applied and affixed onto their surface. (See examples of We and Ngere masks: 1978.412.527; 1979.206.6.)