Exhibition Title: UNMASKED
Theo Eshetu / Jebila Okongwu / Graeme Williams / Sue Williamson / Hervé Youmbi
Exhibition Dates: October 26 – November 18, 2017.
Hours: Tue – Sat 12 – 6 PM.
Address: AXIS GALLERY, 625 W. 27th St. (bet. 11th & 12th), New York, NY. 212-741-2582

Unmasked probes the underbelly beneath surface appearances and projections. The five artists in this exhibition engage ideas about the American dream, flush out the obscured truths behind political crimes, and examine distorted Western notions about non-Western art, as well as the dynamics of power.

Theo Eshetu’s Atlas Fractured, a multimedia installation shown at documenta14, layers images from diverse cultures and periods to destabilize cultural hegemony. A key strategy in Atlas Fractured is the projection of portraits of living people over ethnographic masks or other artworks, creating a lived relationship to past and or foreign cultures. This creates a play with history and a quest for enduring values. Theo Eshetu remarks, “The now is grotesque, uncertain, and burdened by the ghosts of the past. Yet there is also beauty in the present, a vitality for new justices, a search for new harmonies, and, contrary to facile political tendencies, acceptance and desire for hybrid states hitherto unknown.”

Jebila Okongwu constructs collages from fragments of the boxes used to transport bananas on well-worn commodity routes between the Third World and the First World. Okongwu’s masks suggest that the banal contemporary reality of banana trade masks underlying power dynamics, which overlay the bloody histories of slavery and colonization, and even permeate personal relationships. His mask images are constructed through the act of cutting, they embody violence, and some also reference constraint and the complex intertwining of sadism and masochism.

Graeme Williams unmasks the American Dream by turning his lens on contrasting neighborhoods in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, bleak suburban subdivisions for the upwardly mobile, and gritty urban environments for the working poor and the unemployed. He centers triptychs of these environments with collaged “posters” that reference idealizations of America that were spread around the world in the mid 20th century, through comics, movies, and other forms of popular culture.

Sue Williamson reveals how the truths of murders and other atrocities were unmasked during South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation hearings, where perpetrators could appeal for amnesty after facing their victims or victims’ surviving families. The two Truth Games works on exhibition relate to the court appearances of Winnie Mandela and the killers of American student Amy Biehl. Viewers can shuttle fragments of statements within these works, reordering truth and shifting appearance and interpretation.

Hervé Youmbi’s multi-media installations entitled Visages des Masques/Faces of Masks undermine Western ideas about “African Art,” old and new. Questioning the notion of “tribal styles,” his masks combine diverse cultural sources, including even the Halloween Ghostface mask from Wes Craven’s movie Scream. Yet, Youmbi’s masks often are ritually empowered, and he documents them being ceremonially performed, which qualifies them as “authentic” although they are contemporary. Youmbi collaborates with traditional carvers, beaders, and coiffure makers, nuancing the idea of his authorship, and blurring the categories of “traditional” African art and contemporary art.