Seattle Art Museum’s new exhibition, “Disguise: Masks & Global African Art,” reinvigorates historical masks from the museum’s collection by showing them with contemporary work by 24 artists from Africa or of African descent.

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A fierce, horned mask from Liberia faces a kaleidoscopic video by Jakob Dwight. The old mask seems to watch the screen, transfixed by the morphing shapes and colors.

This pairing — part of a big, bold exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum titled “Disguise: Masks & Global African Art” — enlivens the mask, plays with the museum setting, and creates a dialogue between past and present.

Traditionally, African masks are made to be worn as part of dynamic, sensorial masquerades, performances which are the primary art form of many African cultures and tools for healing and problem-solving. When masks enter museum collections, they can lose their performative functions, becoming static objects in vitrines.


‘Disguise: Masks & Global African Art’

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays-Sundays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays through Sept. 7, Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave.; $12.50-$19.50 (206-654-3100 or

“Disguise” reinvigorates historical masks from SAM’s collection, while focusing on contemporary work by 24 artists from Africa or of African descent. New work was commissioned from eight artists: Jakob Dwight, Brendan Fernandes, Emeka Ogboh, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Jacolby Satterwhite, Sam Vernon and Saya Woolfalk.

According to co-curators Pamela McClusky and Erika Dalya Massaquoi, this mix of old and new was part of their initial conversations about the exhibition.

McClusky, SAM’s curator of African and Oceanic Art, calls this a kind of “serious play,” which “draws on the primordial pull” of these traditional forms to take on contemporary issues of identity, representation and globalization. Massaquoi, a consulting curator at SAM since 2013, states that they wanted to create “immersive, complex, interactive experiences” in keeping with traditional experiences of masquerades and in order to relate to contemporary, media-savvy viewers.

We are cloaked in the experience even before we enter. Mannequins wearing African regalia from SAM’s collection guide us toward the exhibition entrance where our movement triggers a soundtrack by Emeka Ogboh. Drums beat amid an atmospheric hum.

Ogboh, a Nigerian artist, created, in his words, “a nonintrusive but immersive sound installation.” Our movements are accompanied by Ogboh’s mesmerizing mix of synthesized music and sampled traditional music. It’s one of my favorite aspects of a show full of profound moments.

Also impressive is the exhibition’s emphasis on video and performance work. Wura-Natash Ogunji, an American artist who works in Texas and Nigeria, filmed a performance during which she and other female performers donned hazmat-type suits and adapted elements of a masquerade that is traditionally the prerogative of men. She filmed from the perspective of a performer, so we, too, walk down the bustling Lagos street as cars zip by and pedestrians stare at our curious procession.

Brendan Fernandes, a fifth-generation Kenyan-Indian, grew up in Kenya in the safari business, moved with his family to Canada, and now divides his time between Brooklyn and Toronto. He explores ideas about hybridity and authenticity in works that range from beautiful video-performance pieces to a deliberately absurd herd of deer decoys. The fake animals sport white resin replicas of a clichéd “African” mask that does not actually exist in the Masai culture it supposedly represents.

Nandipha Mntambo, a South African artist, also works in a variety of media, including vivid photographs that feature her masquerading as a bullfighter. In “Europa,” Mntambo becomes an ominous bull, confronting the issues of race, colonization and sexual aggression in the myth of Zeus who disguised himself as a white bull and abducted the Princess Europa. In her contribution to the exhibition catalog, Mntambo states that her work isn’t about easy binaries of male/female or black/white, but about “the in-between space and how it leads to understanding the world in a more global way.”

This fluid — sometimes messy — complexity permeates the exhibition. We are repeatedly asked to consider what masks we wear and how masquerades hide and reveal. These questions are particularly poignant given current discussions about gender and racial identities.

This is what museums should do: showcase and reinvigorate their collections, commission new work, and spark conversations about the relevance of tradition to today’s social problems and artistic practices. In “Disguise,” all of this is achieved through provocative sensory experiences that have the power to envelop and transform us.