Hervé Youmbi | Visages des Masques

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ARTIST STATEMENT

Visages deMasques / Faces of Masks questions the impact of colonization on the production of masks used today in Africa for worship and ritual. It also invites us to discover a hybrid implementation that combines traditional and modern visions of the culture of the mask in our increasingly globalized world. This project reverses the historical trajectory of sacred masks from Africa ending up on display in secular Western museums—the masks created during this project will first be exhibited in the West and then return to Africa to be used in sacred performances in Western Cameroon.   

Collectors and connoisseurs of African art objects often assert that “authentic” African art disappeared with the advent of colonization. The impact of colonization’s dual reality—opposing the so-called “traditional” with the “modern or contemporary”— is evident in all sectors of postcolonial African life: religion, politics, art, culture…and perhaps it lies at the root of the dullness and inertia in which Africa can seem stuck. But can we say that colonization extinguished the production of true objects of African art? What type of authenticity are we talking about it? How and who should define authenticity? And incidentally, what Africa are we talking about? 

In western Cameroon today, masqueraders sometimes wear Hollywood-inspired plastic masks, made in China, such as King Kong or the Scream image (derived from Edvard Munch’s seminal work). I have witnessed such masks performing ritual dances during the funerary celebrations of important people. In 2011, I also observed such masks during the ceremonial dances that inaugurated my brother, Tcheumany Youmbi Landry, into the secret society of Kun’gang to Fondati (Bafang). The sight of these masks evoked profound questions that lie at the heart of this project: 

  • What is the function and meaning of such masks in contemporary African ritual dance performance? 
  • Does their presence in masquerade transpose a more whimsical face onto ritual practices in Africa today? 
  • What is the contribution today of contemporary sculptors in the production of African masks for ritual and worship? 

Although the mask was the first African artistic expression to receive international recognition, today many contemporary artists of African origin regard the mask as a cliché to be overcome. Those who dare to approach this topic tend to regard the mask as cosmetic. Colonialism’s curiosity cabinets, museums, gallery exhibitions, private collections, auction catalogs, and glossy coffee-table publications transformed the function of masks to one of secular exposure and display, which obscures the mask’s sacred roles. Today, 80-90% of masks made ​​in Africa are serial reproductions of famous masks made for the market. They reproduce a dubious pastiche of pre-colonial “authenticity” like that visible in the sculptors’ compound in Foumbam (a city of ancient arts and crafts traditions) and other similar sculpture centers throughout Africa.  

“Faces of Masks” bridges Africa’s conflicting realities, bringing past and present into dialogue through essential facial expressions of an independent Africa, dynamic, proud, and standing on a pedestal of continuity that perpetually kneads its own values. ​​The evident skill and artistry of Cameroon’s woodcarvers, beaders, and costumers, who help supply masks to “tourist trap” markets, are employed to create the masks that form part of this project. They are masks intended for eventual use in the ritual life of west Cameroon, after they have first traveled abroad for exhibition.  

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

The project juxtaposes images of the treasured African masks now owned by prominent Western museums with contemporary masks made by Cameroonian artists and artisans, prompting viewers to question the meaning and function of the mask in Africa today. The masks are hybrid forms, combining traditional African forms with global influences, but of a type used in ritual performances in western Cameroon today, and will be returned to Cameroon for ritual use there.  

One third of the masks will be created by the artist, the remainder created by sculptors and artisans who create masks for secret societies and for the market. All of the masks are made in consultation with masters of secret societies, who have already specified the mandatory and optional characteristics for the hybrid forms to be created for this project. Masks will combine anthropomorphic and zoomorphic characteristics and hybridize cultural origins. An example is the Bamileke elephant mask that combines a Chinese-manufactured version of a Hollywood-film image—“The Scream”—inspired by a European painting. Similarly, a Kun’gang mask of Bamilike, Cameroon origin also integrates Dogon (Mali) features, and employs contemporary materials—instead of cowrie shells, folded tops from beer bottle, and for its dreadlocks plastic bottle tops.   

The empty export crates, installed as a “forest,” will each bear an image of a museum-owned mask, printed on self-adhesive vinyl. Underneath the image of each mask will be its data: identification by “tribe” or culture, the modern country into which this origin was colonized, the mask’s indigenous name, its media, its dimensions, its date, its provenance, and its current ownership. These empty crates suggest the evacuation of both the sacred function of the masks and the contribution of their often unknown or unnamed African artists and former owners: they are frozen in time. On the other hand, the crates also suggest the key role of Africa in a globalized and increasingly mobile world, in terms of providing raw materials, a rapidly growing middle class of consumers, and a young and more skilled workforce than in the past.   

All the elements of the project have been and will be fully documented, including preparatory sketches of masks to be used in the rituals for which they are intended. 

The installation is variable to adapt to the exhibition venue, and encourages viewers to circulate among the elements.