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Special Exhibition: Reconfiguring an African Icon
Installation co-curator Yaelle Biro discusses with artist Willie Cole his perspective on the African mask as a source of inspiration for his works featured in Reconfiguring the African Icon.


Yaelle Biro: My name is Yaelle Biro. I’m the assistant curator for African art here at the Metropolitan Museum. I am with Willie Cole, one of the artists in the exhibition Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents.

The works highlighted in this exhibition attest to the enduring relevance of the African mask as a source of artistic inspiration. Whether responses to the sheer physicality of the mask or its role as a cultural icon, each work selected pays tribute to the powerful legacy of the African mask and its infinite potential for reinvention. Man Ray’s iconic 1926 photograph Noire et Blanche serves as a historical anchor in the installation. It contextualizes the role played by African masks during the first decades of the twentieth century as catalysts in the redefinition of the Western visual lexicon.

The four living artists represented have in common their use of unconventional materials to achieve unexpected reinterpretations of the mask form. With their whimsical sculptures assembled from a variety of discarded consumption goods, Beninese artists Romuald Hazoumé and Calixte Dakpogan ironically reflect on the fact that the mask is the African form of expression most renowned in the West. American sculptor Lynda Benglis was inspired by a specific type of mask from Equatorial Africa that she transposed into ethereal representations in glass. Finally, Willie Cole, who is sitting with me, pays tribute to classical genres of African masks through crafted accumulations of humble material drawn from his own environment.

So, Willie, there are three sculptures from you on view in the exhibition that all relate to types of masquerade tradition from West Africa. Could you explain why you are drawn to this subject matter?

Willie Cole: My first introduction to African art was art from West Africa. I had a friend who was an art dealer of African art and he specialized in Yoruba pieces of figures and masks. So even before I was making masks in my art, I had a strong love and fascination with that work, not just the sculpture itself but also with the religious stories and dance, so I fell into kind of a neo-Yoruba headset early on in life.

Yaelle Biro: Two of the works that are exhibited  are reinterpretations of a specific type of headdresses called ci wara, worn during agricultural rites among the Bamana people from Mali. They gracefully evoke the form of an antelope but are a fusion of different animal attributes. Why did you choose this type of mask as a point of departure for your work?

Willie Cole: The ci wara came to my awareness through books, like most African art. And I had a sense after seeing it for maybe ten years, that there was something similar to a ci wara and a bicycle. So I just one day explored that and came up with these particular pieces. Having worked as a graphic designer for many years, I like things that are crisp, clean, and beautiful. And the ci wara is certainly all those things.

Yaelle Biro: For the other work that is not related to ci wara, it is called Shine and it is made from assembled women’s high-heeled shoes. And to me, it appears to reference a type of cumulative masks from Côte d’Ivoire, in particular the masks from the Nguere and We peoples. Does the composite aspect of those masks appeal to you in particular, and was it actually one of your points of reference?

Willie Cole: That particular region creating those masks did not come into my awareness when I was making my work, but the idea of accumulation, the idea of containing energy, putting things together, those are the things that appeal to me. My aesthetic is very much inspired by African art, in all of my work. But I expand that to an interest in physics and spirituality, which in some ways are the same thing, and work to exhibit and also release the energy in an object through pressing things together tightly, so that you can see it and sense that there's some hidden power in it. I also have this whole theory that everything in the world is made out of one thing, and I try to prove that with shoes.

Yaelle Biro: So let’s talk about shoes. I’m sure that everybody wants to know why shoes, in particular.

Willie Cole: I grew up in a family of all females, so that had a lot to do with it. My mom loved high-heeled shoes; my grandmother loved high-heeled shoes. I came to the high-heeled shoe in my art consciously because of the availability of the high-heeled shoe and because of the variety of textures and colors. But then I began to think about a work by Salvador Dalí that has a high-heeled shoe in it. I began to think about Jasper Johns’s expression of “anxious objects” and what that means, and then considered the high heel to be an anxious object. Because it is a strong pop culture icon, you know, it has a lot of history, it has people who love it, people who hate it, feet who love it, feet who hate it. And it’s the kind of object that, without the hand of a person like me, it still has beauty, it still has many layers of meaning. So it’s almost like a ready-made object to take to the next level of expression.

Yaelle Biro: It is well known that modern artists at the turn of the twentieth century were influenced by African art or inspired by African art. Can we say that your work is a reflection on that aspect of art history?

Willie Cole: Yes, in fact, I find that the more links an artist has to art history, the better it is. I saw a show at the Museum of Modern Art in the eighties called Primitivism in Modern Art and that really cued me into the idea of using African art as a catalyst or using the African art aesthetic in my work. And that was emphasized further when I went to a fair in Nice around 1987, Art Junction International, and I saw a trade piece of African art, a figure, a seated figure, and the artist had put stereo headphones and a wool cap on that figure. And this was a French artist taking African art and putting something on it to make it more Western, I guess. So I just took those things and applied that to my issue of "African American"—that strange name that they labeled us with—and decided that I would now take American things and make them look African.

Yaelle Biro: Would you say that using materials that are part of your familiar environment to reinterpret masks is a way of paying tribute to works from Africa?

Willie Cole: I think it’s more about paying tribute to a process of creation where one responds to the environment. I’ve made lots of masks and they don’t all look African, but they all are created through the same process, often finding an object and then multiplying that object to the point that the object no longer is just the object, it becomes like a cell or a building block. So when you see it, it’s two things at once. And, you know, I just play into transformation, whereas in traditional African society, the transformation comes through a ritual action behind a mask—with a dance and with an accompaniment of a drum or a chorus, the performer as well as the viewers experience transformation. In my work here, there is no drum, there is no song, but the mask is the result of a transformation that occurred in my studio through my own experience of finding things in my environment and playing with them, basically, until they tell me where to go and they become other things.

Yaelle Biro: Thank you, Willie, for being here with me today and for giving us your insight on your works in the installation.

Willie Cole: My pleasure.

Yaelle Biro: Reconfiguring an African Icon is on view at the Metropolitan Museum from March 8 to August 21, 2011.

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