Liberating the storytelling of African masks from the filters of culture, time and geography
Artist Zina Saro-Wiwa. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

Liberating the storytelling of African masks from the filters of culture, time and geography

African masks and figurines need to be liberated from the “scaffolding” of site-based interpretations, whether in Africa or the West, and listened to with humility and vulnerability, said Zina Saro-Wiwa at the 2020 Coleman Leture of the African Studies Center.

“Contemporary Ogoni masks have a full life they can communicate if they are listened to by those on the continent and consumers abroad. We Africans need to be engaged in more meaning making. The world around the objects, the Africa that lives contemporaneously, should be encouraged to speak.”

UCLA International Institute, July 15, 2020 — In a unique Annual James S. Coleman Memorial Lecture at the UCLA African Studies Center (ASC), international artist Zina Saro-Wiwa made a one-hour film that combined performance, lyrical narrative and a range of visual images to address how African masks, past and present, are viewed and understood in Africa and the West.

She then discussed the film, which draws on her archive of over a million photos, with ASC Director Andrew Apter and online viewers in a well-attended webinar held on June 29. The event drew participants from across the United States, Europe and Africa.

The film, “Worrying the Mask: The Politics of Authenticity and Contemporaneity in the Worlds of African Art” is available for viewing on the ASC website through July; the transcript of the online discussion will remain accessible on the site.

In both the film and discussion, Saro-Wiwa advocated a radical new approach to African masks and figurines based on the inherent storytelling agency of the objects themselves. Her approach went beyond cultural explanations to what she called the “subcutaneous” layer of African masks, that is, the energy they hold and the stories they have to perform, which differ depending on the site.

A filmmaker, curator and artist (active in video, photography and sculpture), Saro-Wiwa is the first artist in residence at ASC, where she is based through the end of the 2020–21 academic year. A large part of her artistic practice explores the masquerade traditions of Ogoniland, her ancestral ethnic region and its people in the Niger Delta in southeastern Nigeria.

In 2014, Saro-Wiwa founded a contemporary “white cube” art gallery, the Boys’ Quarters Project Space, in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, for which she regularly curates. The gallery is situated in the former offices of her father, the late writer, political and environmental activist and Nobel Prize nominee, Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Although the gallery began with a focus on contemporary art, both national and international, Zina Saro-Wiwa organized an exhibition of the works of traditional carver of African masks, Promise Lagiri, for the first time in 2019. Her film, “Worrying the Mask,” grew out of an extended essay that she wrote for the show.

Erasing the dichotomy between ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ African art

Artist Promise Lagiri. (Photo courtesy of the Boys' Quarters Project Space.) In the wide-ranging narrative of the film and the June 29 discussion, Saro-Wiwa challenged all orthodoxies surrounding the interpretation of African masks — particularly the false dichotomy between “traditional, authentic” and contemporary traditional African art. The same type of masks owned by wealthy Western collectors and shown in Western museums are still being carved and used today in village masquerades throughout Ogoniland and other parts of Africa, pointed out the artist.

“This style of work is not merely preserved, it is very much alive and functioning now. And the freshly painted, pristine quality of these objects underscores their contemporaneity,” she says of the work of Promise Lagiri in the film.

“Contemporary traditional art making like Promise’s work therefore throws up an interesting philosophical challenge,” she observes. “Rather bemusedly, the works on display in [his] show would be deemed ‘inauthentic’ by Western traditional African art experts.”

Why, she asked, is the work of contemporary African mask makers not sought by Western collectors and museums, but only masks made in the pre-colonial era – for which the anonymity of the carver, the patina of age, local materials and community use are understood as indicators of authenticity? And for which provenance, or chain of ownership, remains paramount?

“It has to be said that parts of Promise’s practice actually fulfills the most stringent international requirements for the stamp of authenticity: he is inspired by timeless, animist spirits and he makes work for local Ogoni masquerade societies,” she says in the film.

“The cult of authenticity regarding African art objects is a peculiar preoccupation amongst European connoisseurs,” she observes. Rooted in colonial conquest, the preoccupation makes “encyclopedic museums” the site of European storytelling about African masks, one based on an Africa of Western collectors’ imagination that leaves the African part of the storytelling absent.

Even the modern Western artists who recognized African masks as art (e.g., Picasso, Braque and Brancusi), comments Saro-Wiwa, viewed these works as “primitive” art.

Artist Promise Lagiri with some of his unpainted Ogoni masks. (Photo courtesy of the Boys' Quarters Project Space.)

The West, insisted the speaker, needs to expand its understanding of traditional African art to include the work of contemporary carvers. “Not all carvers are skilled enough to create transcendental work, but the ones that are skilled enough should be called artists,” she says in the film. “The Africa that has been set in motion after the arrival of Europeans still has a relationship to [pre-colonial African art].”

Recognizing agency: Allowing African masks to perform

African masks and figurines, said the artist, need to be liberated from the “scaffolding” of site-based interpretations, whether in Africa or the West. Saro-Wiwa urged an approach to their appreciation based on humility, vulnerability and listening to what they have to say. A process, in other words, more akin to a spiritual activity than to intellectual ethnographic analysis.

“Traditional Ogoni carving is still used to deal with the world and its deficiencies,” she observes in the film. “They are miraculous emblems of survival that can take on many emotional projections and reflect something fresh and valuable back to the viewer.”

Karikpo masks of artist Promise Lagiri. (Photo courtesy of the Boys' Quarters Project Space.)

More than once, the artist implied that masks operate as a portal to a spiritual consciousness that transcends cultural and geographic boundaries and are able to “perform” a story wherever they find themselves. The performances may look very different, but the objects remain the same. “Let’s submit to the work, let's submit to the art, and then we start to tear things apart and all these wormholes… are opened up,” she said.

The storytelling of African masks is limited by both the ethnographic approach of Western museums and the insistence that masks can only be understood within the context of African masquerades, she said. Instead, she said, masks should be experienced in multiple ways, ranging from “white cube” gallery exhibitions to modern artistic uses.

“By the same token,” she said to ASC Director Andrew Apter, “I'm very interested in stretching what ‘authenticity’ might mean even in the village. I don't mean let's experiment — that it's just western artists or diaspora artists or city artists [who] do the experimenting. What would it be like if we experimented in the village — village experimentation? What would that look like? Where would that go?” she asked.

“I like to worry tradition,” she said during the June 29 discussion. “So I'm very interested in seeing what this thing is — it's so much more than even how it exists in the African Ogoni context.”

Ogoni mask by artist Promise Lagiri. (Photo courtesy of Boys' Quarters Project Space.) One way Saro-Wiwa hopes to open up the discussion about Ogoni masks in Ogoniland involves their relationship to the environment — especially in a places such as the mangroves of the Niger Delta, which have been massively polluted by the Western oil industry.

“I think that this kind of art making does connect to environmentalism, and I feel like it should be an opportunity in Nigeria to have a discussion about our relationship to our environment and the way that animism before Christianity articulated and proscribed our relationship with the environment,” she said to Apter.

Such a conversation, she conceded, would have to deal with difficult taboos associated with masks and animism in monotheistic religions, especially Christianity. “But it's a real shame that interest in the natural world in that way is seen as problematic,” she said. “So that’s what I want this work to be doing. This is the conversation that we should be having.”

In a related vein, she noted several times that many contemporary Ogoni carvers abandon mask making when they become Christian and that Promise Lagiri is frequently visited by Evangelical Christians who urge him to abandon his work.

With respect to the West, Saro-Wiwa urged museums to relate exhibitions of African masks and figurines to the lived experience of Africans in Africa and the diaspora. In one part of the film, a series of images highlights the visual similarities between African masks and the faces of actual African and African American men and women. Saro-Wiwa referred to these comparisons during the discussion saying, “These masks are us. They are us.”

“In a globalized world and in a teaching institution such as a museum, even in a gallery space, there is no excuse for a disconnected Africa of the mind predicated, as the displays are, on ethnographic pedagogy,” she says in the film. “These objects have a job to do and yet [museums are] not powerful in advocating for an expanded view of African life and the human experience. Instead, they are powerful reinforcers of narrow African stereotypes.

“Contemporary Ogoni masks have a full life they can communicate if they are listened to by those on the continent and consumers abroad,” she narrates. “We Africans need to be engaged in more meaning making. The world around the objects, the Africa that lives contemporaneously, should be encouraged to speak.”

Toward the end of the film, Saro-Wiwa says of pre-colonial African masks and art objects in Western collections: “Maybe their work has only just begun. Maybe they chose to be stolen, transacted and transported. Maybe this is their technology for moving around. Maybe they have a job to do. Maybe they have us exactly where they want us.”

Children model unpainted masks of artist Promise Lagiri at his village workshop.
(Photo courtesy of the Boys' Quarters Project Space.)

Published: Wednesday, July 15, 2020