ATHENS, Ohio (Feb. 5, 2007) -- Starting Tuesday, Feb. 6, masks from Mali and other nations of West and Central Africa can be seen in the Kennedy Museum of Art exhibition Behind the Mask: African Art from the Ellen Hobbs Collection and the Kennedy Museum of Art. The exhibit will be on display through April 22 with a closing reception April 20.
Drums pound as masked dancers whirl past a Malian landscape. One mask symbolizes the creation of the universe, another the succession of sacred ancestors. This post-funereal masquerade tells a story of the Dogon cultural group. And each aspect of the scene – from song to dance to each individual mask – plays a vital role in the telling.
Guest curator, Assistant Professor of African Art Andrea Frohne, faces a unique challenge for this exhibit. To her, masks read like cryptic phrases when taken out of their larger cultural narrative. "The masks we see hanging on a museum wall have been excerpted from the more holistic conceptualization of the arts in Africa," Frohne says.
Art forms in Africa, she explains, tend to overlap. The West separates creative expression into genres and media for isolated exhibition. But in Africa, the drum beat directs the dance step, choreographed to maximize the aesthetic charms of finely crafted masks and colorful garb. In the end, it's all one art.
To put the masks in context, Frohne enlisted the help of students in her graduate art history seminar. Each student selected one or two cultural groups to research, focusing on the role masks play in the groups' ceremonies, performances and cultural beliefs. The team will supplement the masks and text on display with still images and video clips of African performing arts. Multimedia installations, Frohne says, help to bring "multi-faceted African arts into the museum space."
For Erin Schwartz, a doctoral candidate in Frohne's seminar class, the project has altered her thinking on the nature of meaning, while sharpening her perception. She even helped to revise the anthropological record by confirming that several masks previously identified with the Bobo people instead belong to the Bwa cultural group (both groups have their origins in the modern African country Burkina Faso).
Schwartz signed up for the class for the comprehensive curatorial experience it provides: from researching to writing to installing the exhibition. In the end, she says, the exhibition offers much more than masks hanging on a museum wall.
"The exhibition has such a wide cultural and stylistic range, and such great contextual information," Schwartz says, "I think any visitor to the exhibition will come away with a well-rounded appreciation for the complex diversity of African art."