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Exhibitions/ Reconfiguring an African Icon

Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents

March 8–August 21, 2011

Exhibition Overview

Works featured in this installation are highly creative re-imaginings of the iconic form of the African mask. Among them are sculptural assemblages made of incongruous combinations of discarded materials by two contemporary artists from the Republic of Benin, Romuald Hazoumé (b. 1962) and Calixte Dakpogan (b. 1958). These ironic tributes to the mask as the African form of expression most renowned in the West are considered within a wider art historical context through their juxtapositions with works in a variety of media by modern and contemporary American artists. The celebrated photograph by Man Ray (1890–1976), Noire et Blanche, recent interpretations in glass by influential sculptor Lynda Benglis (b. 1941), and composite creations by Willie Cole (b. 1955) are among these.

The installation is a collaboration between the Museum's departments of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art and Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

In many world cultures masks allow performers to adopt a wide range of characters and emotions. They can take on an endless variety of forms: human or animal; sacred or profane; dramatic or comedic. They are not meant to be experienced in isolation but rather as an integral component of celebrations, from the epic tributes to Dogon elders in Mali to popular holidays such as Halloween or the Day of the Dead and to the numerous Mardi Gras carnivals held throughout Europe and Latin America.

It is well established that African art forms, most notably the mask, were a source of inspiration for modern artists such as Pablo Picasso, André Derain, and Henri Matisse in the early twentieth century. The aesthetic of the African mask thus contributed to a redefinition of the Western visual lexicon. Considered especially alluring were its accessible reimagining of the human face and its aura of inscrutability.

This selection of works from Africa, Europe, and the United States attests to the enduring relevance of the African mask in modern and contemporary art. The five artists represented here—Lynda Benglis, Willie Cole, Calixte Dakpogan, Romuald Hazoumé, and Man Ray—have all used the African mask as a catalyst for creative exploration. Their works reflect on a century of viewing the mask as a disembodied form—that is, as an art object in a museum removed from its original performative context. Informed by his or her respective individual experiences, each artist harnesses the transformative ability of unconventional materials to achieve unexpected reinterpretations of the idiom.

African masks are often thought of as carved wooden artifacts, but they are an inherently complex and dynamic art form: to fully appreciate them, one must view them in motion, animated by costumes, dance, and music; the various media added to their surfaces are thought to imbue them with mystical powers; and the influence of foreign materials and techniques have led to a continuous redefinition of the genre. Such dynamism finds parallel expression in the work of these five artists, all of whom operate outside these traditions. Responding to the sheer physicality of the mask while alluding to its spiritual quality, each of their works pays tribute to the powerful legacy of the African mask and its infinite potential for reinvention.

I have only to look at something, anything, and it can instantaneously give me an idea. Whether a face, an object, or an event, it can immediately suggest a shape to create, in painting, in photography, in sculpture. . . . It isn't a document, it isn't the direct impression of this object or this event, it is the result of this impression, which immediately gushes out.

—Man Ray (Interview with Pierre Bourgeade, Paris, 1972)

A pioneer in a variety of media, Man Ray is best known for his progressive photography. As a member of New York's Modernist art scene at the beginning of the twentieth century, he first awoke to the creative impulse generated by African art in 1914 when sculptural works from West and Equatorial Africa were exhibited at the gallery 291. It is possible that the aura of mystery that surrounded African art in his day resonated powerfully with Man Ray's attraction for art that defies simple interpretation and classification. Incorporating African artifacts in his photographs contributed to his declared artistic goal "to amuse, bewilder, annoy or to inspire reflection."

Whether as a sought-after portraitist; a documentary photographer hired by dealers, collectors and artists to visually record works from their holdings; or the creator of advertisements for fashion magazines, Man Ray frequently included African artworks in his striking photographic constructions, either as props or as prime subjects. His extensive and innovative body of work featuring African masks and figures was central to the development of his career.

Whenever people anywhere talk about Africa they think about masks. . . . Today, they are the best way to represent my people, who continue to question their own identity.

—Romuald Hazoumé (Interview with Martin Henatsch, Neumunster, Germany, 2010)

Romuald Hazoumé conceives of his masques-bidon, or "jerrican masks," as an homage to West Africa's masquerade traditions. They are also portraits of Benin's contemporary society with a humorous twist, as well as layered and multifaceted reflections on the relationship between Africa and the West.

Hazoumé grew up in Porto-Novo, the capital of the Republic of Benin, where he continues to work. He has always been deeply aware of the central importance of masks as part of his Yoruba cultural heritage. As a child, he began constructing masks for Kaléta, a form of initiation for children that takes place annually in late December. Years later, he wore a mask of his own at a costume ball organized by a German friend, and realized its appeal to Europeans living in Benin who conceived of masks as the epitome of African art.

In a creative gesture that evokes Marcel Duchamp's readymades, Hazoumé appropriates and reconfigures the commonly found gasoline jerrican as a mask. His deliberate choice of this material addresses the impact of Western consumerism on Africa. The Beninese rely upon Nigeria for petrol, supplied in jerricans via extensive black market trading between the neighboring countries. These nonbiodegradable canisters, usually made of black rubber from Germany, accumulate in the streets of Cotonou and Porto-Novo. Hazoumé relishes the irony of sending discarded matter back to Europe and the United States through his creations.

The works on view in the exhibition demonstrate Hazoumé's commentary on a range of issues. Through the pair of closely related masks Ibedji (Nos.1 and 2) Twins, Hazoumé references his attachment to his Yoruba origins by evoking the high birth rate of twins—who are socially venerated—among Yoruba peoples. Both Internet and Coconut reflect on the impact of the West on Africa: Internet does so through its harnessing of imported matter in the form of electric cables; Coconut is a female representation defined by the crowning braid of straight, blonde hair, a reference to the trend among Beninese women to dye their hair. Ear Splitting was created for the Liverpool Biennale in 1999 and—inspired by the musical legacy of that city—features two large earphones worn as oversized goggles, as well as hair defined by a whirling brush. With Godomey, which means "the other side," Hazoumé reveals what one hides about oneself from the outside world by showing the usual gasoline jerrican inside out.

All of my sculptures speak of my country, my culture, my surroundings and my beliefs, as well as of the entirety of my worldview. I work with recovered materials since they are weighed down by time and transformed by usage, conferring a degree of vitality upon my sculptures that I would not be able to attain if I used new materials.

—Calixte Dakpogan (Interview with André Magnin, Porto-Novo, Benin, 2005)

Calixte Dakpogan is a descendent of the royal blacksmiths of Porto-Novo in the Republic of Benin. His ingenious sculptural compositions reflect upon coastal Benin's long history of exchanges that have defined its religious and political history. The country is the spiritual center of the religious system known as vodun, a faith that was disseminated and expanded to communities throughout the Americas as a result of the Atlantic slave trade.

Together with his brother Théodore and cousin Simonet Biokou, he has kept alive the royal forge at the Gukomy quarter of Porto-Novo dedicated to Gu, vodun's deity of iron and war. Inspired by Romuald Hazoumé, the Dakpogan forge began creating secular sculptures from composite material. In 1992, Benin's government commissioned one hundred works from the forge, including site-specific references to Gu, to be exhibited at the First International Festival of Vodun Arts and Cultures in the former slave port town of Ouidah.

While metal remains an essential component of his works, Dakpogan's sculptural creations have come to incorporate an expensive repertory of discarded consumption goods, including cassette tapes, floppy disks, CDs, combs, sandals, and soda cans. His skillful use of negative space is another formal device exploited in compositions. Consciously invoking the mask's importance as it relates to regional expression and to its centrality to the art-historical canon, Dakpogan reflects with humor on this status through a highly inventive synthesis of unexpected yet familiar elements.

Recently, I saw in front of the Whitney Museum a parked truck full of African masks from the tourist trade. They were for the ritual and about the ritual, created by the tourist industry, and the seller was very cognizant of the Cubists referencing African art. . . . I thought that I would choose the images that for me were very pure statements and transpose them into my feeling about their beauty.

—Lynda Benglis (New York City, November 2010)

Since the late 1960s, Lynda Benglis has gained international recognition for her adventurous pursuit of media as a sculptor, her provocative artistic stands, and her vocal feminism. Fascinated by the beauty of malleable and transformative material such as latex, bronze, wax, and plastics and glass, her oeuvre is one defined by sensuous and amorphous forms. For Benglis, the act of artistic creation addresses the changing and organic nature of shapes, and imbues the material with a life of its own. When exhibited, these forms often merge physically with the walls, floors, and ceilings and literally take over the space through their sheer expressive force.

The performative dimension of masking traditions from Mexico, Africa, and the West led her to collect African masks and sculptures during the 1960s. Later, she found that ritual aspects of these traditions resonated with her own creative process. In 2010, Lynda Benglis was awarded a residency at the Tacoma Glass Museum where she undertook a new series of works in the unexpected medium of glass, combining her long-lasting engagement with African masks with the type of experimentation with transformative media that has defined her career.

These explorations make reference to a celebrated mask genre from Equatorial Africa that is formally distinctive for its minimal definition of the eyes and vertical nose ridge that bisects the length of the elongated visage. The wood surfaces of such masks are covered with a white chalk to suggest ancestral apparitions destined to inspire fear, regulate village life, and protect individuals against mystical aggression. It seems natural that Benglis would be drawn to such ethereally defined masks as the point of departure for her own hollowed, translucent compositions. Her works quote the overall form of a Fang ngil mask in the medium of glass so that it presents a stimulating interplay between what is visible or hidden through passages of translucency and opacity. Anacoco's shadowy black shell is traversed by a meandering thread that blurs facial features. By contrast, the inner content of unshaped copper is visibly embedded within golden-yellow Tullulah. Finally, Ville Platt's thinly blown green glass is clouded by floating blue shadows and polished circular markings.

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.)