Hervé Youmbi | Les Masques Célestes



For his installation at Münster’s Skulptur Projekte 2017Hervé Youmbi attached eight hybrid African masks to trees adjacent to a Christian graveyard, juxtaposing African and European ideas about death and spirituality. While the stone gravemarkers are somber and grey, with the names of the dead chiseled into the stone, virtually permanent, the masks are carved from wood, regarded in most African cultures as possessing life-force or spirit—like humans—and subject to decay. The masks are adorned with brightly colored and valuable beads that help invite deceased spirits to enter the masks, to animate them, and to dance with the living during ceremonies and celebrations. In European imagination, the world of the dead and of spirits is often a zone of fear—thus the horror genre in Western imagination that deals with ghosts, vengeful spirits, and zombies. In Christian thought, the deceased person has departed to a spiritual realm where the living might eventually reunite with them after death. This Christian framework was grafted onto, and displaced, earlier pagan beliefs that were more nature-based, and often included considering the forest as a spiritual place. Hervé Youmbi’s hybrid African masks incorporate the “Ghostface” mask now popular for scaring people on Halloween, a festival with pagan roots. “Ghostface” originated as the central character in Wes Craven’s horror movie Scream (1996), in turn inspired by Edvard Munch’s famous 1893 painting “The Scream,” which expresses anxiety. In Africa, “Ghostface” masks also have become incorporated into “traditional” masquerades, where they are both entertaining and can have a spiritual function. By bringing together these two differing sets of beliefs about spirituality, Hervé Youmbi invites us to contemplate similarity and difference in belief and practice, as well as cultural hybridity—for his masks are all hybrid forms that draw on a variety of African cultures and ceremonial contexts.