Masquerade is a public spectacle based on disguise. It conceals and resists knowledge. In many ways it is unknowable. But in the ethnographic museum masks are presented as if they reveal the mysteries of a culture and its cosmology. Museums pin them down in glass vitrines and furnish them with explanatory labels. As a result African masks are often presented as static symbols of the identity and material culture of rural communities from a bygone era. But masking has always been current, reflecting the times in which it is performed, and the landscapes - including cities - that masked spirits encounter.
A collaboration between Port Harcourt-born British-Nigerian artist Zina Saro-Wiwa and Oxford anthropologist David Pratten, who tell a very different story about the meaning of the cultural practice known as masquerade. This show combines anthropology and contemporary art to capture the complex emotional stories behind a modern urban masquerade called Agaba.
The Agaba is one of the enduring masquerades of the oil-producing Niger Delta region of Nigeria. It is outdoor theatre: loud, rambunctious and urgent. On the surface, Agaba masking enables the men that comprise the group to perform a tough, masculine identity that is physically, politically and spiritually ‘rugged’. But Unmasked shows that behind the mask, in the songs they sing and in the bedrooms where they dream, these men reflect on their fate in intimate and ironic ways. This story of masquerade finds tenderness and everyday tragedy in the personal and the political. This is told through the songs, the mask carving and performance, and captured in Zina Saro-Wiwa’s installation Bad Boys & Broken Hearts.
The storytelling employed in this exhibition weaves art and anthropology, creating an expansive visual language that exposes the vitality and vulnerability of life in modern day Port Harcourt. Life, which has been impacted deeply – and often traumatically – by the international oil and gas industry. Unmasked takes us through the glass vitrine to expose the beating heart of the humanity that created the mask and shows the secrets of masquerade are not essential and esoteric but elusive and everyday.