Thank goodness for art.
Just when you think society is shrinking into a series of circles in which everyone only has eyes for their own comfort zone, here comes Seattle Art Museum with a show that blows all your expectations out of the water. “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art” has been up for a few weeks now and is a perfect example of how art can span time and space to bring us jaw-dropping insights from other human beings. Two dozen contemporary African (and African-descent) artists were invited to create new takes on the traditional African masks in the museum’s collection — and the result is stunning.
The exhibit begins (after a walk through the traditional African galleries, now expanded to include a life-size mask procession of costumed figures to set the scene) with a multimedia immersion. In a three-way wall screen, Sondra Perry (New Jersey) plays a video loop of a black-haired woman gyrating and twisting in an all-white room. Her body is whited out, so only her outline and hair remains, sped up in a violent marriage between ecstasy and mania. It’s hard to watch but fascinating, a meditation on identity and the connection between body and spirit. Further in another screen loops New Yorker Jakob Dwight’s “Autonomous Prism,” a digital image that folds like a child’s butterfly painting in and out of black silhouette and radiating lines of saturated color. There’s a constant gaping hole in the middle of this digital mask — an eye? The soul? Dwight only raises the questions, not the answers.
More Dwight masks take up the first full room — curator Pamela McClusky and consultant curator Erika Dalya Massaquoi allot a whole room to each of 10 artists, and group the remaining 14 by theme — screens of slowly pulsating visages, achieving a surprising visual depth and speaking of mask as fluctuation, mystery. Along with the contemporary art in every room are traditional masks from the SAM collection, mostly from the 20th century but representing age-old cultures. Here, a Liberian Dan judge mask imposes order through symbolism, its woman’s face and high bonnet of shells an imposing pinnacle. A Nigerian Afikpo mask of disorder speaks with oddly Picasso-like asymmetry and color fields of white, ochre and black; a Liberian Wee judge mask creates a massive mythical beast with multiple tusks, red horns, a crablike shell exterior, buffalo hair and a straggly beard — quite terrifying and just as fluid as Dwight’s projections.
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The large central gallery is filled with human deer. Brendan Fernandes (Kenya, New York) puts long white face masks on life-size plastic deer, arranging them in a slightly menacing herd that challenges you as you enter. The animal-human boundary gets more blurry with the rest of his multimedia work: intricate line drawings of multi-animal beasts done with Illustrator but mounted on paper tacked casually to the wall; neon animal masks that blare out nonsense in Morse code; videos of a male ballet dancer creating a choreography of adoration to a museum mask; and four large screens of computer-drawn masks, sliding insidiously in and out of their black and white and “reciting” (through available headphones) Dada poetry. The effect is hypnotic, confusing, awe-inspiring, exactly as you’d expect a mask to sound.
Other rooms play on how traditional mask qualities play into the 21st century. Wura-Natasha Ogunji (Nigeria) puts contemporary space-age costumes — hazmat masks, white bodysuits, mirror glasses — onto two actors who roam around Lagos with GoPro cameras; she shares the room with photographers Jean-Claude Moschetti (France, West Africa) and Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou (Benin), who explore ideas of masks as supernatural, containing spirits either mischievous or menacing, their wearers posing in modern landscapes but shrouded with changes of light.
Zina Saro-Wiwa (Nigeria, U.K.) explores, through photo and video, how masks take away identity: people in regular street dress mingled with contemporary costumes close their eyes to better assume the power of their regalia; a masked “Invisible Man” causes destruction wherever he goes.
Then “Disguise” gets trippy. In the back gallery, Saya Woolfalk (Japan, New York) costumes mannequins with layered leaves, brocade and calico accents, arranging them in serene yoga poses against a gorgeous wall image of painted silvery pipeline through which digital images flip and spin — exploding flowers, flowing blobs of blue, pink and lavender like a psychedelic machine. Here, also, is where you start to really notice the soundtrack of Emeka Ogboh (Nigeria), who has created a score of electronic and drum music to fit each gallery. Here, it’s a trance beat that combines with the sci-fi texts on the wall and the costumes as if a Tokyo nightclub fused with a hipster SoHo gallery.
“Disguise” isn’t just a creative concept to link past and present, to force us to see historic African masks as something other than history, although it does that in spades. It is, in fact, a commentary on the masks we all wear as human beings — and how we all need to step outside our circles into a completely different way of seeing in order to explore what those masks do to us, and for us.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
IF YOU GO
What: “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art.”
Where: Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Monday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays (closed Tuesdays) through Sept. 7.
Admission: $19.50 adults/$17.50 seniors, military/$12.50 students and ages 13-17/free members and ages 12 and under, also first Thursdays (all) and Fridays (seniors).