Deciphering the Traditional Symbology of Contemporary Masks

Our intertwined history with the undeniably disparate act of disguise has assured the immeasurable quality of mask design.

Masking can be as lighthearted as it is significant – from the playful finishing touch assembling a costume to channeling the divine. Donning a mask affords its wearer a certain kind of freedom and anonymity, space to explore the depths of being or to possibly even craft charismatic alter egos. In some cases this space may just be the catalyst to surrender and become another being entirely.

 

© Jean-Claude Moschetti. Magic on earth,  Egungun, Igbalé Irin n’la, white Alabèbè. Courtesy of the artist.

© Jean-Claude Moschetti. Magic on earth, Egungun, Igbalé Irin n’la, white Alabèbè.

 

Masking within a performative context

Masks hold cultural importance in varying degrees – besides artistic excellence or spiritual capability. Some, such as the iconic death mask of Tutankhamen, are household names while others remain surrounded in mystery.

Outside of the static museum experience when masks are components of human interaction, the act of masquerade and ritual allow the mask to truly come alive.

In ‘Diptych‘ we explored the visual feast and creative abandon that comprises the traditions of west African masquerade. In the series, artisan prowess juxtaposed with high fashion and fine art, demonstrates a unison of creative vigour along with a heavy dependence on nature as an inspiration source.

 

2b1-aa-klv-diptique

DIPTYCH III, Burkinabe Yaie Masqueraders X Alexander McQueen headdress by Guido Palau.
A collaboration between KLV and Another Africa, 2012.

 

The cacophony of electrifying imagery is commendable in itself, however the cultural backgrounds to the ensembles are born of intriguing and long standing traditions. The wearers of such attire can be merely an amusing spectacle while others transcend mortality to embody the power of the gods themselves.

In the instance of the secretive Egungun societies found in Nigeria and Benin, disguise is often applied to funerary rituals and the deliverance of guidance and justice.  In her monograph Maske, celebrated masquerade documentarian Phyllis Galembo describes these very figures as “ghost-like shapes without clear features or limbs”.  Otherworldly in appearance, their presence within society allows ancestral ties to grow ever strong.

Heading north and into the interior, the spectacular costumery of the Bwa in Burkina Faso feature extravagant monochrome masks that embody both a peoples ancestry and the supernatural forces of animals through vivid stylisation.

 

© Jean-Claude Moschetti. Magic on earth, Volta Noire, Pouni 01. Courtesy of the artist.

© Jean-Claude Moschetti. Magic on earth, Volta Noire, Pouni 01. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Jean-Claude Moschetti captures the contrast between the two – Egungun and Bwa – both visually and symbolically, as can be seen in our previous articles; The Vibrant Otherworldly Masqueraders of Burkina Faso and Magic on Earth.

 

Beyond wood, artists exploring new idioms

The versatility of the mask can be as vast in a single culture as it is on a global scale. While masking is not the pan-African commodity it has been historically considered, there is a surge of contemporary artists on the continent who are applying their traditional perceptions to the practice.

 

© Romuald Hazoumè. Kucoback, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and October Gallery, London.

© Romuald Hazoumè. Kucoback, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and October Gallery, London.

 

As the MET described,  it is the “unexpected reinterpretations of the idiom” by artists such as Romuald Hazoumè that maintain captive audiences throughout many an art scene. However the exploration of spirituality remains crucial to the depths of their meaning. The significance of chosen materials enforced by such artists runs parallel to that of the traditional artisans.

Hazoumè is a forerunner in the field of contemporary mask-making. His adept skill reflects ample measures of severity and humour as illustrated in Humble Jerry Cans Transformed into Striking Political Masks. For more than two decades, Hazoumè’s jerry can sculptures have been his storytelling devices. These face-like forms divulge clues to the religious and political landscape of his native Benin.

 © Serge Attukwei Clottey. Water Warrior, 2013 . From the ongoing series Afrogallonism. Courtesy of the artist.

© Serge Attukwei Clottey. Water Warrior, 2013 . From the ongoing series Afrogallonism. Courtesy of the artist.

 

In a gestural fashion somewhat reminiscent of the Hazoumè jerry can faces, Accra-based emerging artist Serge Attukwei Clottey also employs the mask-like attributes of the ubiquitous jerry can. In his iterative piece titled AfroGallonism, Attukwei brings to life art installations through social theatre – often played out on the streets.  Attukwei offers social critique on issues like the importance of water and the environment, and the glaring failures of local governance to provide basic infrastructure to the Ghanaian population.

It is not unusual that a contemporary artists’ choice in materiality relates to subject matter and artistic voice as illustrated by Hazoumè and Attukwei. Celebrated Beninese artist Calixte Dakpogan transforms waste products and found materials into powerful anthropological sculptures that abound with personality. As with Hazoumè, for these two artists hailing from the cradle of Vodun, new materials simply will not do.

 

© Calixte Dakpogan. Woli, 2007. Courtesy C.A.A.C. - The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva.

© Calixte Dakpogan. Woli, 2007. Courtesy C.A.A.C. – The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva.

 

The visible markers of time and usage – evoking the journey and stories – exclusive to found objects are vital factors that are incomparable to anything factory fresh. The spiritual capacity of objects is telling of the artists’ Vodun heritage.

At the heart of Dakpogan’s practice is a family affiliation with Ogun the god of Iron, dating back to the royal court of King Toffa (c.1850-1908). It is believed that Ogun permits blacksmiths to unlock the secrets of the Earth through their craft. Through his association with metal, Ogun is perceived responsible for the development of civilisation. Fon artisans throughout the late nineteenth century depicted Ogun in scrap metal form, similar to Dakpogan’s own starting point where he and his brother would create such sculptures. Dakpogan’s practice may have changed yet the integral use of metal remains a poignant aspect to his practice.

 

 

© Calixte Dakpogan. Papa Sodabi, 2002. Steel, metal, plastic, glass and other found materials.  . Courtesy C.A.A.C. - The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva

© Calixte Dakpogan. Papa Sodabi, 2002. Steel, metal, plastic, glass and other found materials. . Courtesy C.A.A.C. – The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva

 

Dakpogan casts his eye on all manners of waste products to build upon his well defined foundations of metal work. Cassette tapes, pencils and scrap plastic are but a few examples of the vast range of materials reconfigured.

It is not merely for his commendable choice of materials that Dakpogan deserves praise. As the MET states, “His skillful use of negative space is another formal device exploited in compositions”. The remarkably individual and often comical characters he creates are an intentional fusion of his ancestry, spirituality and culture.

 

© Calixte Dakpogan. Hounsa, 2007. Mixed media. Courtesy C.A.A.C. - The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva.

© Calixte Dakpogan. Hounsa, 2007. Mixed media. Courtesy C.A.A.C. – The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva.

 

Transmutation through found objects and material

The concern with choosing specific and often found materials permeates throughout many west African artistic trades. From Benin’s rich masking history to west Cameroon where handicraft is the heart of the rites and the home of sculpturist Joseph-Francis Sumégné.

Sumégné, like Dakpogan and Hazoumè, places the same importance on found materials which is aided by the convenience of their availability.  As a sculptor, he is a crafter of both body and face. However when he presents the disconnected construction of eloquent facial features, it becomes easy to think mask.

Disposing of organic materials in favour of plastics and metals grants his sculptures their own identity, subsequently instilling their distinctive depth and soul. Reminiscent of a traditional Bamileke Elephant mask, the triptych sculpture Parallel Portraits of First Sawa Kings, 2013  is a fine example of the Sumégné style of mask.

Whilst his artistic vision remains deeply rooted in his cultural heritage, it is also apparent that he has evolved his vernacular into a wholly contemporary vision – one owing to a construction process utterly unique to himself.

 

© Joseph-Francis Sumégné. A Parallel Portraits of First Sawa Kings, 2013,  Project for 'le Jardin de Sculpture de Bonanjo'. Courtesy of the artist and Doual'art.

© Joseph-Francis Sumégné. A Parallel Portraits of First Sawa Kings, 2013, Project for ‘le Jardin de Sculpture de Bonanjo’. Courtesy of the artist and Doual’art.

 

Undoubtedly the intricacies of Sumégné’s mask like faces are fascinating, yet it would be an injustice not to mention the twelve metre high gargantuan ‘New Freedom’ public art piece in Douala. The behemoth steampunk-like sculpture stands as an imposing transmutation of waste, and a commentary on urban development.

Art is often intent on encouraging social development and Sumégné is a steadfast promoter of this. His visual brilliance lies in his fusion of disciplines that has reached a pinnacle through sculpture. Found materials are re-conceived into fresh new forms through sewing with copper wire, aided by his tapestry and basket weaving skills. Not only will new materials not do, deciding on and finding the right found materials can take weeks. His technique is the Jala’a – ‘a manifesto that he summarised in a few words by “self- transcendence”’ – Doual’art.

While it is often west African cultures that are synonymous with the act of disguise, Mozambique is home to the Makonde Masquerade and to a contemporary anomaly. Maputo born Gonçalo Mabunda diligently applies instruments of war to his creative process for an evocative pay off.

Decommissioned weapons and military equipment left over from a sixteen year long civil war are beautifully transfigured without losing the shadow of this long and terrible conflict. Through his poetic reinvention, Mabunda projects the story of Mozambique.

In forms of mask and throne these sculptures verify the metamorphic nature of his art, a remembrance of those who died at the hands of the very weapons that commemorate them. They too act as a preventative measure against further loss of life. Akin to many traditional masks, Mabunda’s take on the spirit of the departed.

 

© Gonçalo Mabunda. Untitled (Mask), 2011.  Courtesy of the artist.

© Gonçalo Mabunda. Untitled (Mask), 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Bell Gallery.

 

A cultural signifier and emblem of power

Mabunda’s masks have overt links to the cubist style and this is no coincidence. Abstraction and stylisation have long been abundant throughout the African continent’s countless masking traditions. The cubists, particularly Picasso, were famed for their stimulation by the eclectic array of masks that were becoming known to them early in the 20th Century. Picasso and Braques, the Iberian fathers of the cubist movement, are renowned for making their inspirations abundantly clear. The fragmented and disjointed portraits lay in overt testament to the creative genius of those who influenced them.

Back in the present there is Gonçalo Mabunda, a citizen of a former Portuguese colony, who devises masks undeniably reminiscent of cubist design. In part it is a documentation of the power of the mask. The alluring traditional designs and themes encapsulated in this art form swiftly permeated the Western scene. The further stylisation of these designs by the cubists has been illustrated by Mabunda in his own established manner.  

 

© Kader Attia. Mirror Mask, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne.© Kader Attia. Mirror Mask, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne.

 

Mirrors and Masks, part of an exhibition by Kader Attiasurely acknowledges the impact of African art on Western Modernism. With roots in both France and Algeria the artist has so far spent his artistic career exploring the ‘in between’ of his identities and the impact of Western culture on North Africa and the Middle East. When placed in the anthropological setting, viewers are frequently alienated from the significance of material and symbolism. Attia formulates his own element of communicating through material, by embellishing traditional masks with mirror fragments. Thus Attia adheres to the rule of applying figurative medium to encourage reflection on this issue.

Regardless of any allegorical depth, the power of a mask in any context is indisputable. This is overtly captured in Mystery Skull by Moroccan artist Mohamed El Baz, part of the ongoing Bricoler L’Incurable, details series that spans over a decade. Motivating El Baz is the concept of ‘mending the incurable’ that often deals with boundaries, both literal and metaphoric.

The Dogon mask in focus is far removed from El Baz’s north African origins, yet it stands as an emblem for tradition. Mystery Skull appears as a rally for strength and unification, indicative of a power within.

The power of the mask is multifaceted and continues to permeate all corners of the Earth. From trick or treat at Halloween to the manifestation of pantheons of deities, masking is as relevant now as it is ancient. Ever present is the discernible importance applied to inanimate material and it is this devotion that allows for spiritual meaning to present itself in such creative abundance. While the roots of some traditions fade into obscurity, others are fitting residents in our contemporary world.

 

© Mohamed El baz . Bricoler L’Incurable. Détails. Mystery skull, 2014 Courtesy of the artist and Imane Farès.

© Mohamed El baz . Bricoler L’Incurable. Détails. Mystery skull, 2014 Courtesy of the artist and Imane Farès.

 

 

Written by Keiron LeVine.

 

Benin, Cameroon, Mozambique, Algeria and Morocco| Doing our part to combat immappancy

 

All images courtesy of the artists. All rights reserved.

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