By Sarah-Beth White

Symbols of spirit and spectacle


A swirling stilt walker, costumed from head to toe, soars in acrobatic wonder. A masquerader contorts in a burst of kaleidoscopic colors as he dances to the pulsating beat of the drums. Members of the community are brought into the circle to join a timeless ritual; and generations learn the roots of their history and culture from a unique art form. These are the video images that greet you as you enter “Facing the Mask”, the new exhibit at the Museum for African Art. The museum has temporarily relocated from Manhattan to Long Island City where it will remain for the next four years while construction is completed on its permanent home in Harlem, at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue. There are over 70 masks from across the African continent on view, as well as a small permanent collection. “It is essential to understand the dynamic function of the mask in African society,” says Frank Herreman, deputy director for exhibitions. “The mask is not just an inanimate object, but a powerful symbol that embodies a wide variety of cultural ideas.” Here, a mask is a face covering. In Africa it is a full body costume, personifying the vivid tapestry of African culture. The mask performance, or masquerade, is accompanied by music, dance and language. “The masquerade must have an audience,” explains Heidi Holder, director of education. Some masks are meant for the entire community, while others are restricted to the initiated. “An audience doesn’t have to be watching close up,” clarifies Holder. “Even the drumbeats of the masquerade from across the hilltops have a spiritual effect on the community.” They understand that an important event is occurring. “I like to compare the art of the mask to the great art of cathedrals,” says Herreman. “African masks portray the stories behind spiritual beliefs.” As they vividly bring these stories to life, they infuse the viewer with a sense of mysticism and awe. Masks serve many functions in African culture. Like us, Africans believe in the wisdom of our ancestors. Social mores have developed from the past. Masquerades often emerge as kinetic history lessons, reinforcing messages from the ancestors. Others are performed to celebrate important events or honor notables. And yes, some masks are meant simply to entertain. “A lot of what we have included in the exhibit are masks that would be accessible to children and the non-initiated,” Holder explains. “We want to provide an inter-generational approach to art.” Visitors can enter a reconstructed Yoruba shrine, where families traditionally gather. A symbolic stick at the entranceway must be removed to protect worshippers from negative forces and bad luck. Inside, the vibrant patchwork masks represent ancestors who bless the families. The hands-on exhibit by classically trained Ivory Coast artist Kouame Jean displays a mask in three stages of development. The feathers, wood, beads, shells, animal skins and banana leaves — materials used in the construction of the masks — familiarize children with the textures and colors of Africa. As I watched the banana leaves crumple in the hands of a small child, I glanced over at a massive full body mask. From afar, it looks like a village hut. Upon closer inspection, it is a 17-foot mask composed almost entirely of banana leaves. “There is a fluid nature to African art,” says Holder. “It’s art for the moment.” Many masks are made from materials that easily decompose and some are even destroyed after use. In some cultures, masks are completely remade for each performance. This way they are fresh to fulfill their sacred rituals. “Through our educational programs we hope to unlock the cryptic nature of African art,” offers Holder. “We want to ignite an understanding of a new culture and, most importantly, how it relates to you.” The museum hopes to attract a broad-based audience by hosting events every weekend. Special events are targeted for schools, families and adults. The museum offers school tours, in-depth curriculum guides for teachers, and gallery activities. Discussions for younger children focus on the concept of masks and ancestors and what they represent. For middle school children, the focus is on coming of age. “Many masks are used in coming of age ceremonies — the transition between childhood and adulthood — and it’s an important theme in our culture as well,” says Holder. “We hope to offer inquiry-based learning.” The museum’s outreach program in its new Queens neighborhood also includes the establishment of partnerships with local schools. It has begun by offering community service programs for area high schools. Joint teacher workshops are planned with MoMA QNS and the Naguchi Museum. The museum’s “Africa Alive” program offers special activities for community-based groups. Future weekend activities include mask-making workshops, drumming circles, tie-dye classes and printing workshops. For Thanksgiving, the museum will offer a gourmet African cooking class hosted by Senagalese chef, Pierre Thiam. Participants will be able to sample such delicacies as marinated oysters and mango mousse. A small fee and pre-registration is required for this event. A full-day Kwanzaa celebration is planned December 21. This interactive presentation will familiarize visitors with the seven principles of Kwanzaa and how they can be celebrated among families and community members. “We want to create a relaxed environment for families to come together,” says Holder. “In our painting workshops, volunteers even clean your brushes!”

Info: Where: The Museum for African Art is located at 36-01 43rd Avenue, in Long Island City. It can be reached via the Artlink Shuttle, a free bus, which connects all the major cultural institutions in Long Island City, including MoMA QNS, the Isamu Noguchi Museum (which shares a building with the Museum of African Art), the Socrates Sculpture Park, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Socrates Sculpture Park and the American Museum of the Moving Image. When: “Facing the Mask” is on view through March 2, 2003. The museum is open Monday, Thursday and Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday and Sunday, 11am-6pm. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission: $5adults; $2.50 seniors, children over 6, and students (with ID); free for members and children under 6. For more info: Call (718) 784-7700, or visit