All posts in “African art”

How Picasso Brought Masks to Europe and Left the Masquerade Behind

Throughout the 20th century, vast collections of African masks made their way into foreign lands and are now on display as the heads of missing bodies. Masks are constantly seen in museums and galleries, on eBay, and at sidewalk sales. In this dislocated state, African masks have sometimes found themselves cast in roles that are shockingly counter to their original intent.

One example is Pablo Picasso’s work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907; Museum of Modern Art, New York), a painting lauded as one of the catalysts in 20th-century art. Pablo Picasso’s decision to take the features of African masks and place them on two naked women was revolutionary, the first step in the radical transformation of space and volume that would become Cubism.

One wonders what would have happened if Picasso hadn’t separated the masks from the masquerade. What if, instead, a full masquerade had come to Paris? For the sake of speculation, let’s imagine the visit of a Dan masquerader from the Ivory Coast, known as a Ge, whose masks were common in French collections. Drummers and singers would escort the Ge masquerader as he moved quickly through the streets to Picasso’s studio. He would have donned a massive costume of raffia grasses, feathers, and fur accents to underscore that he was not from any normal human realm but from the sacred forests. Bells and drums, shouts and songs would contribute to the blur of fast-moving activity that halted in front of the artist’s door.

Pounding to be let in, the Ge would speak in a grave and distorted voice, while a translator would shout a demand to open the door. Picasso would be pushed aside as the Ge entered the room, and pandemonium would break out as African eyes beheld masks like their own were depicted atop the naked bodies of two women with pale skin.

With outrage and confusion spreading, everyone would turn to gauge the reaction of the Ge, the supreme authority. He would stop and stare, then order everyone except Picasso and the translator to leave the studio. The Ge would then sit on the group and gesture for Picasso to sit nearby as he explained a few things.

First: no mask was ever to be worn by a woman, and most definitely not a naked woman in the middle of a room with other naked women. Defying all proper behavior, this breach of etiquette required immediate correction, so songs and offerings for women would be prescribed.

The Ge would ask Picasso why he put masks on such women and who they were. Picasso might bring up difficulties with the women in his life, and how he’d been looking at pictures of masks in books and at a museum, then had collected a postcard of naked women from a place called Dahomey, marveling at their sleek bodies but also worrying about the diseases circulating in the bordellos of Paris.

In response, the Ge might offer practical advice about how to manage relationships and to seek alliances with spirits that would inspire joy instead of dark fears. He could also explain that masks were not to be bought and sold; instead, they were intended to initiate visitations from beings who would emerge from the forests to contribute their wisdom in times of confusion.
Days and weeks might pass as the Ge transferred aspects from the system of thought from the Côte d’Ivoire. It was his role to teach younger men ways to operate in the world, and he would have found Picasso’s troubled mind in need of adjustment. To alleviate some of the artist’s perplexity about life, the Ge would recommend that he consider attending a school convened in the forest, where he would learn about his responsibilities as a young man, how to survive in difficult circumstances, what it takes to manage a family, when and how to show respect for women, the practical skills of life, and all about the art of performance as a means to express visions of human aspiration. Picasso would be offered a chance to immerse himself in a masquerade that was a school, a system, and an overriding ideal.

Instead of this full-bodied experience, Picasso invented his own approach to African masks and sculptures. Masks became heads without any voice or body. They became voiceless ambassadors, who were often cast as characters in other’s artistic fantasies.

Admittedly, exporting an entire masquerade is difficult and can be inappropriate at times. Masquerades are intensely local, requiring special staging developed within communities that invest massive time and effort in them, often in deepest secrecy. They rely on collaborations among a multitude of talented artists who devote their creativity to performers whose identities are concealed, and transporting this cast and crew is not easy.

Artists today in the United States and across the globe are working with new interpretations of disguises that play out in creative ways. They are using digital mediums to bring masquerades into places where they have never been before, and creating new meanings as they empower new actors—such as women—to participate. They adapt iconography from multiple cultures and influences, weaving together inspiration from their family’s varied histories, the far-flung cities and rural areas in which they’ve lived, and artistic traditions from across the globe.

It’s a heady mixture of inspiring havoc. It’s a moving, whirling parade that invites us to respond—to take up or take off our own daily disguises and participate.

This is an edited excerpt of the essay, “Meet Me Where the Masks Are Alive and the Spirits Roam Free,” written by Pamela McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art for the Seattle Art Museum. The essay is included in the exhibition guide, Disguise: Masks & Global African Art.

Disguise: Masks & Global African Art is on view at the Seattle Art Museum. See this dynamic unfixed exhibition before it departs for the Fowler Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles on September 7.

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SAMart: Consider the figure

Male standing figure, 20th century, Tanzanian, Nyamwezi/Sukuma culture, wood, natural pigments, cloth, height: 26 in., Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb, in honor of Mark Groudine, 2012.28.21, Photo: Elizabeth Mann. On view beginning 24 May, African art galleries, Seattle Art Museum.

Male standing figure, 20th century, Tanzanian, Nyamwezi/Sukuma culture, wood, natural pigments, cloth, height: 26 in., Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb, in honor of Mark Groudine, 2012.28.21, Photo: Elizabeth Mann. On view beginning 24 May, African art galleries, Seattle Art Museum.

If only we could hear the songs that once surrounded this figure! Distinctively long limbed sculptures like this were never seen in quiet spaces, but in the middle of stirring tornados of dance and song. This figure may originally have been dressed, but is now able to show off a lean angular stance that is near, but not exactly, symmetrical.

This figure, as well as other recent acquisitions of African art, goes on view in a new installation starting on May 24.

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SAMart: More than a mere rabbit

Masks have work to do, coming alive to interact with people in forceful ways. They can sing songs, ease pain, encourage laughter, and honor elders. A new installation in the African galleries brings together masks that align human desires with animal characters.  Including several recent acquisition, these masks align human desires with animal characters. Birds, antelopes, bush cows, a hyena and a rabbit are ready to greet you on your next visit to the museum.

Rabbit mask, 20th century, Bwa/Bobo culture, Burkina Faso, wood, 18 in. height, Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb, 2012.29.11. Currently on view in the African art galleries, fourth floor, Seattle Art Museum.
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Two Sculptural Pair & A Next 50 Affair

There is a display in SAM Downtown’s Wright & Runstad Gallery for African Art holding two pairs of sculptures that provide a transcendent view of “togetherness” and what it means for the spiritual to be connected with the earth. The first is a pair of “Male and Female figures” made by the Baule of central Cote d’Ivoire. The painted wood sculptures represent spirit spouses that inhabit another world parallel to this one, and are prescribed by diviners to promote a healthy living situation between spouses. Imbued with power by the diviner each sculpture is given individual attention by its client in order for the power to be activated. Beside this pair resides a set of Congolese harps carved with faces at the end of their long curving necks to keep their players company and watch their every move. Atop flexed, carved legs their bellies would be filled with sound as the harp couple was played by two musicians travelling as a pair. During their travels the performers recited history as their livelihood and sang legendary epics.

Taken together these objects bring to mind the exhibit Theaster Gates: The Listening Room where objects form a collective history and repurposed materials find new meaning as art. The collection of records taken from Chicago’s now defunct Dr. Wax record store reminds me of the spirit spouses who are deserving of more attention. Giving attention to the records in SAM’s twice monthly DJ sets in the Listening Room (come listen next week May 3 & 6!) has allowed people in our community to come together at SAM through music. Although the spirit spouses must be decommissioned of their power by the diviner before they enter the museum the enduring coolness in their expressions continues to give meaning to their remedial function. Similarly the decommissioned fire hoses lining the walls of the Listening Room evoke memories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s where protestors were sprayed with these high pressure hoses during race riots. Our collective memory is jarred by Theaster Gates who saw value in an art object where others saw scrap material.

 

 

 

Considering this communal environment brings up another project Theaster Gates is involved with – the upcoming performance of “red, black & GREEN: a blues” coming to the Intiman Theater for Seattle Center’s Next 50 festival 30 May – 2 June.  The performance is collaborative and interactive, written for the stage by performer, activist, and educator Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Bamuthi is working with a host of talented artists including set design by Gates. Click here to learn more about Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the Living Word Project and watch videos on the performance “red, black & GREEN: a blues.”

 

 

The central question addressed by Bamuthi is, “what sustains life in your city?” This is something he asked many people through the Life is Living festivals he has curated since 2008 in various U.S. cities and forms the inspiration that went into writing “red, black & GREEN: a blues.” By incorporating “the voices of people often left out of discussions about living green,” this conversation on the environment succeeds where others have fallen short, and actively seeks a reimagining of where we place value in our community.[i] This forms a collective experience that, through the stories Bamuthi has engaged and the recycled materials of Theaster’s set inspired by row houses, express our social ecology with power, grace, and rhythm.  The success of this performance comes from the belief that “ultimately we are interdependent and stronger through collaboration,” which, like the Congolese harps and Ivorian spirit spouses, helps us maintain good relations and feel connected with the earth.

-Ryan R. Peterson, Curatorial + Community Engagement Intern


[i] Source: Mapp international productions website. Artist proframs, artists and projets, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, red, black & GREEN: a blues. Last accessed 24, April, 2012. http://mappinternational.org/programs/view/214

Top photo: “Male and Female Figures,” wood, paint, Ivorian, Baule & “Pair of Harps,” wood, skin, fabric, Congolese, Ngbaka. Photograph by the Author. Taken 4/24/12. JPEG file.

 

 

 

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Yoruba

SAMart: Dance Wand for Sango

Shango is a Yoruba deity who harnesses bolts of lightning and thunder and uses them to reward worshippers and punish deceit. Oral praise poems say he is the one “who destroys the wicked with his truth, leaves in confusion the contentious man, and dances in the courtyard of the impertinent.”

Double axes adorn this woman’s head to show her alliance with Sango’s moral fire. She kneels before his authority to present an offering. Such generosity is considered a noble gesture of morality and ensures that Sango will consider blessing her with children and wealth.

“Dance wand for Sango,” date unknown, Yoruba, Nigerian, wood, 19 7/8 x 7 9/16 x 4 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 67.91, Photo: Susan A. Cole. Currently on view in the African Art galleries, fourth floor, SAM downtown.
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Protecting Art in an Earthquake

When a natural disaster strikes, like the recent earthquake in China1, saving human lives is naturally the first concern. In the aftermath however, the loss of cultural artifacts and historic sites can be devastating to communities as well. Art and architecture provide evidence of our shared histories and give us a foundation on which to build a common identity. Living in Seattle, an area of the world prone to seismic activity, one might ask what Fremont would be like without its troll, or the Seattle skyline without the Space Needle? Hopefully, we will never know.

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