Major new exhibition by artist Zina Sara-Wiwa and anthropologist David Pratten opens at Pitt Rivers Museum
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Major new exhibition by artist Zina Sara-Wiwa and anthropologist David Pratten opens at Pitt Rivers Museum
Masquerade is a public spectacle based on disguise. It conceals and resists knowledge. In many ways it is unknowable. Photo: © Zina Saro-Wiwa.

OXFORD.- UNMASKED spirit in the city is a radical new exhibition and installation that explores the personal stories behind modern masquerade in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, challenging traditional museology to unmask not just the costumed dancers but also their emotional universes and economic realities.

Masquerade is a public spectacle based on disguise. It conceals and resists knowledge. In many ways it is unknowable. In ethnographic museums such as the Pitt Rivers Museum, masks are presented as if they reveal the mysteries of a culture and its cosmology. Museums pin them down in glass vitrines and furnish them with explanatory labels. As a result, African masks are often presented as static symbols of the identity and material culture of rural communities from a bygone era. But masking has always been current, reflecting the times in which it is performed, and the landscapes - including cities - that masked spirits encounter. A collaboration between Port Harcourt-born British-Nigerian artist Zina Saro-Wiwa and Oxford anthropologist David Pratten, Unmasked tells a very different story about the meaning of masquerade. The show’s focal point is a modern urban masquerade tradition called Agaba, which comprises of young and middle-aged men, who often work in the underbelly of Port Harcourt society but use masquerade as a way to express themselves, make money and provide social cohesion and protection.

The Agaba is one of the enduring masquerades of the oil-producing Niger Delta region of Nigeria. It is outdoor theatre: loud, rambunctious and urgent. On the surface, Agaba masking enables the men that comprise the group to perform a tough, masculine identity that is physically, politically and spiritually ‘rugged’ but Unmasked shows that behind the mask, in the songs they sing and in the bedrooms where they dream, these men reflect on their fate in intimate and ironic ways. It is striking how many of the songs sung by these men and boys are tender, wry love songs, contrasting with the ‘bad boy’ image of urban masqueraders, as well as the drier taxonomic presentations of masquerade culture in Western museums.

Using the songs, the mask carving and performance, the storytelling employed in this exhibition weaves art and anthropology, creating an expansive visual language that exposes the vitality and vulnerability of life in modern day Port Harcourt, life which has been impacted deeply – and often traumatically – by the international oil and gas industry. Using film and audio to bring these stories to life, Zina Saro-Wiwa’s featured major new installation Bad Boys & Broken Hearts, is inspired by David Pratten’s findings on the nature of the songs of urban masquerade and continues her own work exploring emotional landscapes and the intersection with masquerade culture. Instead of the usual museum displays of artifacts from masquerade culture, the installation features two large vitrines containing life-size replicas of the actual bedrooms of two Agaba masqueraders from Port Harcourt. These roomscapes, furnished with clothes and objects gifted from the featured men, are a poignant reflection on power, poverty, strength and vulnerability Exploring the spiritual ecologies of the oil-cursed Niger Delta of her birth, the artist asks: “Does a permanent sense of socio-political heartbreak lie at the heart of the Niger Delta experience? And does this societal grief manifest itself in the bodies and cultural performances of its citizens?”

Oxford University anthropologist David Pratten says: “In collaborating with Zina and in combining anthropology and contemporary art, Unmasked tells a new story of masquerade, finding tenderness and everyday tragedy in the personal and the political.”

Unmasked takes us through the glass vitrine to expose the beating heart of the humanity that created the mask. It shows the secrets of masquerade are not essential and esoteric but elusive and everyday. Capturing the universal emotions of love, joy and hope combined with tales of loss, fear and heartbreak, the exhibition explores how masking is an art form of the urban present, speaking to modern day hopes and hurt.

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