There’s been a resurgence interest in the inscrutable African mask in several museums lately, including this horrible one at the Barbie Museum. Its as if the more evidence there is that the African of the European imagination does not exist in static primitivity, the stronger the attempt to put it back into that caged zoo.

Thankfully, there’s something different at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in a small section of a first floor gallery: “Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents” (March 8, 2011–August 21, 2011).

Ever since Man Ray’s image of the porcelain-white visage his mistress, Kiki, juxtaposed with that of a gleaming Baule portrait mask from Côte d’Ivoire was published in French Vogue (“Noir et Blanche,” May 1926), the West appropriated the African mask as the visual object that embodies static “primitivity.” Roll in Picasso, André Derain, and Henri Matisse, whose collective homage to the inscrutable Other helped manufacture visual distance from the primitive, while inviting comparison and desire.

The Met’s small exhibit includes the Beninese sculptors Romuald Hazoumé and Calixte Dakpogan (that’s Hazoumé “Ibedji (Nos.1 and 2) Twins,” completed in 1992, above) and American sculptors Lynda Benglis and Willie Cole. Using natural, traditionally used materials, the effluvia of consumption, and fine, coloured glass, these four artists experiment with re-personifying the performative and living qualities that masks embody in their original, animated contexts, re-configuring those traditional ‘Western’ associations of masks with the savage/native/other.

While Hazoumé and Dakpogan are artists who are intimately involved in the business of traditional masquerade and mask-making (Dakpogan is a descendant of a family of royal blacksmiths), their work gestures towards Benin’s long history of trade—exchanges that defined its cultural, religious, political and aesthetic history. Hazoumé use of a series of discarded petrol jerrycans, and Dakpogan’s repertory of discarded consumer goods, including cassette tapes, floppy disks, CDs, combs, sandals, and soda cans are a humorous nod to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, inviting the viewer into a conversation about the multifaceted, multilinear relationship with the West, modernity and the disposable nature of consumption.

Further Reading

When is a coup a coup?

Breaking with its habit of tolerating military coups, more recently the African Union has made it a policy to challenge unconstitutional transitions of power. Why not in Zimbabwe?