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Behind the Masks
BMA Series Encourages Us To Think About Traditional African Art As Cogently As We Do Western Art





THE FINE PRINT: (clockwise from upper left) Kifwebe Owl Mask. Luba, Congo (Kinshasa). c. early 20th century. courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Barry and Toby T. Hecht, Bethesda, Maryland, BMA 1987.144; Adiaha Unak. Annang/Ibibio, Nigeria. Early 20th century. courtesy The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alan Wurtzburger, BMA 1954.145.52; Mask. Pende, Kwilu sub-group. Congo (Kinshasa). Early 20th century. courtesy The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alan Wurtzburger, BMA 1954.145.73; Mask with Horns Representing an Opha (Beautiful Young Woman). Urhobo, Nigeria. Early 20th century. courtesy The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Barry and Toby T. Hecht, Bethesda, Maryland, 1993.220; Fatma Charfi. Swiss Woman. 2002. Courtesy the artist.

Meditations on African Art: Color

The ritual object most generally associated with African material culture is the mask. Masks are an ancestral convention for mitigating mercurial human conditions in an unforgiving natural or exacting social environment--the means to an incarnation of spiritual assistance. Dramatic tribal masks encountered in many museum collections and exhibits vary greatly in overt configuration and covert symbolic function. Captivated by the imaginative possibilities in them, beginners may find it is no simple matter to recognize the origins and nuances embodied in mask form, expression, pigmentation, and use.

Training our eyes to see and appreciate more acutely, BMA curator of African Art Karen Milbourne has just unveiled the second in her museum's tripartite series, Meditations on African Art. This segment studies the symbolism in a specific set of colors--red, white, and black. She uses the mask to demonstrate her point.

Not all African masks are illustrated in these three colors. Benin and Nigerian masks are known for their opulent interplay of brilliant hues. But largely across vast and uneasy tribal borders, and especially among Voltaic cultures, red, white, and black are the principal conventions of Africa's manifest mysticism. The three colors map the cosmos though white kaolin clay, red vegetable dye or iron-impregnated soil, and charred plant material.

We have our own complex and rival modern significations for color. Black for night, for the unknown, for evil, for art-opening outfits, goth culture, urbane sophistication, and racial nomenclature; white for ideals of bridal purity, cleanliness and innocence, whitewashed deceptions, and supremacists; red for authority, conflict and bloodshed, stop signs, menstrual fertility, communism, conservative voters, power ties, and code to prepare for an unnerving day in the airport. And so it stands that the pigments on these masks might hold entirely disparate, encrypted meanings, too.

Consider the gallery's two central masks. Like a greeter at Wal-Mart who steer you toward a cart, the blackened Ogoni mask and the white Nsembu mask serve to orient you and equip you for what is ahead. Each glowering with one red eye and one white one, these masks initiate the idea of seeing the spiritual realm and the earthly world as being interlocked in the greater imagination. The Congolese Nsembu relies on a chalk-white mask to evince a ghostly lunar influence on the deceased, with red outline included seemingly as a remembrance of vitality, and black as the marginal ebbing concern of death. The Nigerian Ogoni mask, considered a "grotesque" mask, reminds all visitors of their eventual mortality. Addressing vices and virtues, within and without, it functions in cautionary social and spiritual roles. Other "grotesques" in the show, identified as "antisocial" Ekpo ancestor masks, are painted solely in black to indicate death. Their contorted expressions speak of negative forces taking hold of the unbalanced soul. This taunting imprint of an aggressive countenance is thus irrevocably affixed.

The BMA installation beautifully balances these dark fearsome presences with their counterparts across the gallery, the Abogho mmuo maiden spirit masks. The series of exquisite white Nigerian "water spirit" masks articulate sublime attributes of beauty, purity, serenity, and temperance. Milbourne has installed the masks to help reveal the distinctive features of the different tribal sets, grouping into threes those that share cultural attributes.

Setting itself somewhat apart from the others, a Duho bat/hawk mask from Burkino Faso demonstrates the Bwa people's particular taste for plank masks. For spiritual performances their masks are set vertically, but the example in the show is a horizontal funerary mask. Like the Dogon people, the Bwa favor geometric checkerboard and zigzag patterning, with the zigzag representing the exemplary moral path of the ancestors. The black color choice in this instance honors values of wisdom, while white indicates ignorance or immaturity--arising out of the observation that goat-hide rugs used by the elders became darker with time and emerging knowledge, while novitiates' rugs were fresh and uncured by inexperience.

Supplementing the masks now captive on the walls, curator Milbourne has invited the Tunisian-Swiss artist Fatma Charfi to install her mixed-media works on the vitality, and also the conventions and restrictions, of society through performative human gesture. She is a thoughtful counterpart, using the same color scheme of red, white, and black, to remark on her mixed national heritage.

Like a seine gathering little folk into its mosquito folds of netting, her evanescent "Human Lace" roils forward carrying countless tiny, spidery white figures that Charfi calls aberics. Cut and twisted from delicate silk tissue, these human silhouettes seem to have been woven into the net. Charfi's works also share a ghostly ancestral condition with the masks, a function to propose social behavior but also convey a sense of ancient to modern continuity. The insect quality of the artist's aberics is effectively lovely. Thorax-chested with antennae-style appendages that taper into wispy tips, these fairy figures pirouette in great numbers and in a number of environments set up for them. "La Haut . . . La Haut" frees them from the netting only to incarcerate them in a small glass house atop a tall pedestal. Red in this instance, they change easily from insect form to anthropomorphic dancing flames. Charfi includes two photographic self-portraits cloaking the sitter beneath veils, her little mingling society of figures composing their lacy design. For the gestural freedom expressed in the repeating intimations of the aberic-folk, their restrictive conditions compel them in the opposite direction. These slight, tissue-paper colonists express in their confinement an optimism to thrive and revel in the interconnected bliss of life, even within the arresting matrices of human existence.





Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper