Visual Art

Finding Truth Behind the Masks of SAM's 'Disguise'

There's a lot hiding in this arresting exploration of global African art.

By Seth Sommerfeld August 11, 2015

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Brendan Fernandes, Neo Primitivism 2, 2007–14, fiberglass animals, resin masks.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde

Immediately upon entering Seattle Art Museum’s Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, patrons are surrounded by spastic video convulsions of two scratched out figures discernible only by the disorienting throes of their black dreads and curls against the white backdrop, as Sondra R. Perry’s video installation Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera projects on the entryway walls. It’s an arresting greeting to the reality of an exhibit about hiding one’s own reality beneath the surface.

The exhibit doesn’t strictly limit its scope to current African residents, expanding its global horizons by including artists with strong connections to the continent via personal history or heritage. Disguise cleverly masks said artists, placing photos of the creators behind draped pieces of cloth adorned with the individual’s name and a quote. It forces patrons to lift up the cloth to reveal the person behind the art. The collection of modern works gets its counterpoint thanks to SAM displaying historic African masks from its collection. While they don’t appear throughout the entire exhibit, the relics situated near the entrance provides context for the new works in terms of the authentic cultural traditions.

Out of all the artists in Disguise, Kenyan-born Brendan Fernandes best blends contemporary mediums with the traditional imagery. His diverse work alone is worth a trip to SAM, commanding and entire gallery unto itself. The most eye-catching of the pieces are the large neon light masks from the Hiz Hands series that confront lost traditions by flickering questions about their own existence in Morse code. The idea of modern artificiality (as well as the concept of being hunted) is furthered with Neo Primitivism 2, an installation of white resin tribal masks placed on the heads of fiberglass deer decoys scattered across the gallery floor. Digital drawings, sound art kiosks, and balloons with African masks graphically printed on them further showcase the breadth of Fernandes’s artistic output and the time he’s spent pondering African anthropology in relation to the current landscape.

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Saya Woolfalk, Chimera from Empathic Series, 2013, still from single-channel video.

Connections to reality ebb and flow throughout Disguise. A darkened room becomes the scene of Saya Woolfalk’s multifaceted ChimaTEK display, a sci-fi journey of sculpture, textiles, painting, music, and video that promotes the messages of a futuristic utopian metamorphosis corporation (it’d make for the perfect cosmic set for a THEESatisfaction music video). Not far away, Walter Oltmann’s Kafka-inspired shiny aluminum wire suit sculptures scream violence and seem pulled from the surreality of a nightmare.

The ugliness we wish weren’t real becomes beautiful in Ebony Patterson’s Of 72 Project. She hangs intricately hand-embellished and vividly colorful bandanas depicting the civilian casualties of a 2010 Jamaican drug cartel crackdown gone array. Angola’s Edson Chagas conveys feeling of wanting to hide from reality in the simplest way possible with his Oikonomos photos, which find a subject with various bags pulled over its head. The bluntness of the pictures first hits on a humorous level, but the images on the bags—which include shopping bags and one with a depiction of Barack Obama—tap into a sense of what we choose as our methods to block out the world.

The faces behind the masks come to provenance in Zina Saro-Wiwa’s Men of the Ogele series. The photographer finds Nigerian men of the Ongoni people who practice the colorful masquerade performance called Ogele in garish costumes. But rather than shooting them in action, she captures the behind the scenes moment where the men are at ease­—unguarded and unmasked. The pictures bring a humanity to the lavishness of ceremony.

While parts of Disguise don’t connect (the loud jumble of Jacob Scatterwhite’s videos feel like a tonal misfire), there’s enough intellectually stimulating work hiding (in plain sight) around every corner to warrant close examination. Find your mask. Find your truth.

Disguise: Masks and Global African Art
Thru Sept 7, Seattle Art Museum, $20

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Edison Chagas, Oikonomos, 2011, digital print, 41.75 x 41.75 in.

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