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Show and Tell: 'Disguise: Masks & Global African Art' at Seattle Art Museum

An intriguing exhibit explores humanity's fascination with alternative realities

Published on: June 25, 2015

The Last Supper in Havana, 2009, Hasan and Husain Essop, South Africa, b. 1985, pigment print on cotton rag paper, 25 1/4 x 36 1/4 in., Josef Vascovitz and Lisa Goodman. © Hassan and Husain Essop, Photo courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.

There is a masquerade going on at the Seattle Art Museum. From the hollowed eyes of wooden facemasks, to full-body suits woven out of aluminum and brass wire, to digital avatars projected on television screens, the museum’s latest exhibition, Disguise: Masks and Global African Art displays a vibrant array of disguises made by traditional and contemporary African artists.

Chimera from the Empathic Series,2013, Saya Woolfalk, American, b. 1979, still from single-channel video, 4:12 minutes, © Saya Woolfalk, photo courtesy Leslie Tonkonow, Artworks + Projects, NY.

“It’s a fresh look at the notion of disguise,” said Pamela McClusky, curator of African and Oceanic Art and lead curator of the exhibition. “Primarily, it’s through the eyes of artists who have been raised in the era of media, so they utilize digital media in many new ways of looking at themselves, the future and aspects of what we’re all up against in life.”

Disguise: Masks & Global African Art will run at the Simonyi Special Exhibition Galleries at the Seattle Art Museum through Sept. 7. The exhibition opens with a collection of traditional African facemasks and includes contemporary masks, costumes, images and films that incorporate the themes of wearing disguises. The result is a fascinating study in humanity’s evolving relationship with alternative realities.

“It does have this common psychological thread that we’re all apart of,” said McClusky. “Masks are a very important art form in Africa, and yet what is going on today is the change in how we communicate, so masks are still used but in a very different format.” Highlights include Jakob Dwight’s “Autonomous Prism,” a mesmerizing video of prism masks; Ebony Patterson’s “Of the 72” made out of bandanas; Walter Oltmann’s aluminum and brass wire “Caterpillar Suits” and Saya Woolfalk’s series of a dazzling mythical species called “The Empathics.”

Should you bring your kids?

Disguise: Masks & Global African Art is best suited for parents, teenagers and older children of all interests and backgrounds, especially those with passions for art.

Kids will like the interactive aspects such as a hands-on area that allows visitors to mix sounds that are part of the exhibition’s soundtrack and a wall of mirrors lined with masks so viewers to see themselves wearing disguises as they leave.

While curators describe the exhibition as kid friendly, parents should use their discretion as some of the images may be frightening for younger kids. The exhibition also contains rapidly flashing images and patterns that may not be suitable for viewers who can be easily overstimulated.

OIKONOMOS, 2011, Edison Chagas, Angolan b. 1977. Digital print, 41 3/4 x 41 3/4 in. (106 x 106 cm). Courtesy of A Palazzo Gallery and the artist.

If you go ...

When: The exhibition runs through Sept. 7.

Cost: Tickets are $19.50 for adults, free for SAM members, $12.50 for students with ID and teenagers ages 13-17 and free for children ages 12 and under. 


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