Presentation Title

African Mask Display in Context

Degree Program

Undergraduate

Major

Interdisciplinary Studies

Abstract

African masquerade is deeply interconnected with the community in which it performs. However, in Western-based exhibition display, the mask becomes the sole object of scrutiny and interest, decontextualizing it from its holistic dimension and multi-media interface. In fact, much of masquerade’s cultural significance is lost if the dynamic multimedia display of which the mask is part becomes alienated from its holistic context, reducing it to a mere static object hung on a wall. The argument can be raised, to mount a mask on a white wall or behind glass, especially grouped among other masks from Africa, as many museums do, takes a position that, instead of praising the work and the culture from which it originates, reinforces misrepresentation and recalls an interest in collecting foreign rarities stemming from colonialism.

This paper engages with the issues of museum display of African art, specifically addressing the popular and common decontextualized mask. In this paper, I make use of the Senufo Poro society of Cote D’ivoire, and the well-known ‘Firespitter’ helmet mask, referred to as Kponyungo, and locally understood as an embodiment of Poro itself, a physical expression of a supernatural entity. Before addressing museum display strategies to better contextualize this mask, Kponyungo’s funerary performance is fully contextualized, brining to life its inherent connections to gender, social structure, aesthetics, life-cycle rituals, and issues of identity. After fully establishing its ritual context, I propose more appropriate, interactive and engaging museum display strategies, better contextualizing the mask within its broader performative matrix, thereby proposing didactic strategies that better communicate masquerade arts and their connection to life, complexity, sophistication, and vitality.

Start Date

24-2-2017 1:30 PM

End Date

24-2-2017 2:50 PM

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Feb 24th, 1:30 PM Feb 24th, 2:50 PM

African Mask Display in Context

African masquerade is deeply interconnected with the community in which it performs. However, in Western-based exhibition display, the mask becomes the sole object of scrutiny and interest, decontextualizing it from its holistic dimension and multi-media interface. In fact, much of masquerade’s cultural significance is lost if the dynamic multimedia display of which the mask is part becomes alienated from its holistic context, reducing it to a mere static object hung on a wall. The argument can be raised, to mount a mask on a white wall or behind glass, especially grouped among other masks from Africa, as many museums do, takes a position that, instead of praising the work and the culture from which it originates, reinforces misrepresentation and recalls an interest in collecting foreign rarities stemming from colonialism.

This paper engages with the issues of museum display of African art, specifically addressing the popular and common decontextualized mask. In this paper, I make use of the Senufo Poro society of Cote D’ivoire, and the well-known ‘Firespitter’ helmet mask, referred to as Kponyungo, and locally understood as an embodiment of Poro itself, a physical expression of a supernatural entity. Before addressing museum display strategies to better contextualize this mask, Kponyungo’s funerary performance is fully contextualized, brining to life its inherent connections to gender, social structure, aesthetics, life-cycle rituals, and issues of identity. After fully establishing its ritual context, I propose more appropriate, interactive and engaging museum display strategies, better contextualizing the mask within its broader performative matrix, thereby proposing didactic strategies that better communicate masquerade arts and their connection to life, complexity, sophistication, and vitality.