Reconfiguring an African Icon

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Date: Spring 2012
From: African Arts(Vol. 45, Issue 1)
Publisher: MIT Press Journals
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,792 words

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Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

March 8-August 21, 2011

Mounted in a busy passageway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fig. 1), "Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents" was a small exhibition with large implications. This unusual partnership between the museum's departments of Nineteenth Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art and the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas presented what was billed as "highly creative reimaginings of the iconic form of the African mask" In a welcome shift from the entrenched insularity and seemingly intractable departmental boundaries that have long characterized encyclopedic institutions such as the Met, the interdepartmental collaboration behind "Reconfiguring an African Icon" brought into focus the complex place of representing African art in contemporary discourses and global art historical practices.

The exhibition showcased a selection of works by artists from Africa, Europe, and the United States as evidence of the enduring relevance of the African mask in modern and contemporary art. Despite its modest scale and tightly focused theme, this cross-departmental project inevitably tapped into key issues and challenges that arise when displaying African art within today's museological constraints, especially when operating across the contested territories of "traditional" and "modern" non-Western art in our global age.

In the midst of ongoing debates over how and by whom contemporary African art is being defined, the Met weighed into this discourse--consciously or otherwise--with eleven sculptural works made over the past twenty years by two artists from the Republic of Benin, Romuald Hazoume (Figs. 2-3) and Calixte Dakpogan (Fig. 4). Incongruous combinations of salvaged and repurposed materials pieced together in a whimsical fashion are the hallmark of these artists' assemblages, which were borrowed from the Jean Pigozzi Collection for this exhibition. While the ubiquity of such pieces in exhibitions of the Pigozzi collection over the past two decades may have diminished their novelty for some (and raised issues specific to the promotion of this controversial private collection for others), the inventive and captivating pieces undoubtedly caught the attention of an uninitiated audience.'

Accompanying these "ironic tributes to the mask" on both sides of the long hallway were works in a variety of media by contemporary American artists Lynda Benglis and Willie Cole. Benglis's hollowed, translucent glass sculptures echo the form and pay homage to the ethereal beauty of the Fang ngil masks that inspired her, while Cole's composite creations harness common household objects in a more complex manner to evoke the Bamana ci wara headdresses he references and reconfigures (Fig. 5). Formal masklike affinities between these pieces and those of their...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A283260696