The Brooklyn Museum’s African Mask Show Is a Complex, Powerful Exploration of Identity

William Villalongo (American, born 1975). "Muses (Artifact 1), 2012

William Villalongo (American, born 1975). "Muses (Artifact 1), 2012

The first gallery in which the Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibition “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art” unfolds is gray-toned, like an old photograph. Stunning masks from various African cultures, dating from the early 19th to late 20th centuries, stare inanimately at visitors from the walls, atop pedestals, and inside vitrines. An enlarged 1922 commercial photograph of more masks, displayed for potential purchasers like specimens, covers the gallery’s back wall.

But the primary clue that this is not your typical taxonomic march through a museum’s African masks collection lies in the title of this introductory gallery: “Becoming Artifacts.” “This room is the way that we’re used to seeing African art, and it is actually the most unnatural way to experience it,” explains Kevin Dumouchelle, the museum’s associate curator of Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands, who organized this iteration of the exhibition, which originated at the Seattle Art Museum.

“On one hand, we’re trying to step back and actually make the experience of seeing African art in a museum a little strange,” Dumouchelle says. “These masks, they become sculpture, but they’ve been divorced from costume, divorced from music, divorced from performers.” He is not shy about critiquing the Brooklyn Museum’s own treatment of African masks, through a small display of ephemera from an early-20th-century exhibition the wall text calls “offensive and Eurocentric.”

“Disguise” serves, in part, as a corrective to all of this—and it does so beautifully. One of its goals is to re-animate historical African masks by showing them alongside a rich array of works—sculpture, photography, installation, video, digital media, and sound art—by 25 globe-spanning contemporary artists from Africa or African descent. These artists help show us that African masks are not lifeless objects made only to be looked at, but rather are potent, animate forms with active uses. In turn, the masks show us that the contemporary artists’ works exist on a long continuum of African mask-making and masquerade, which Dumouchelle describes as a “genre that is a platform for artistic creativity and engagement with the issues of its time, and of our time.”

- Karen Kedmey