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Review: A River Depends on its Tributaries

By Eric Valosin

So Yoon Lym, "Qyay" "Angel" and "Jhonathan" 2010

So Yoon Lym, “Qyay” “Angel” and “Jhonathan” 2010

Seton Hall University
300 South Orange Ave, South Orange, NJ

Sept. 8 – Oct. 12
10 am – 12:30 pm, M-F

Sande Secret Society Bundu Mask

Sande Secret Society Bundu Mask

The waters run deep in this revisitation of what the art world has dubbed “Primitivism.” Pushing against criticism of MoMA’s famed 1985 exhibition that a single-minded emphasis on formalism gave short shrift to narrative, conceptual context, this exhibition wades boldly into the themes of gender, spirituality, ritual, power, and femininity that course through art of the African Diaspora.

Brilliantly curated by Walsh Gallery Director Jeanne Brasile, the exhibition hinges around four primarily West African masks on loan from the collection of the Merton D. Simpson Gallery. True to Simpson’s own vision, the exhibition strives to set ancient and contemporary, local and foreign, established and emerging artists all on equal footing in one dialogue. Marianna Torgovnick once argued in her book Gone Primative that “primitive artifacts in a sense lost their authenticity as soon as the West got access to them.” Rather, this show has the effect of animating the western work with a new aura of ritual authenticity bestowed by the masks.


Charlee Swanson, “Bursting Out” 2013, with Mende Female Figure


Adejoke Tugbiyele, “Past/Future” 2015

An almost unexpected thread of glitzy allure runs through the work, from the twinkle of Charlee Swanson’s broken window panes and Adejoke Tugbiyele’s gleaming sink-drain armor, to the glamor of adolescent self-awareness in So Yoon Lym’s braided hair paintings or the luscious (dare I say fetishized) adornment of Ben Jones’s Changó fans (to which my three-year old son affectionately referred as “cake mirrors” for their nearly frosted, confectionary appeal).

Ben Jones

Ben Jones

And yet, one can not embrace this allure without confronting the tenacious ferocity of these items. Shattered, battle ready, emergent out of colonial histories of injustice and identity re-formation, the pageantry of the otherwise enticing femininity betrays an underlying power and danger. Upon entering the gallery, the docile household utility of Willie Cole’s Complementary Soles clothing iron prints is immediately interrupted by the the threatening tendrils and sharp protrusions of Chakaia Booker’s untitled rubber tire sculpture, warning the viewer that the femininity he is about to experience is not a one-liner.

Willie Cole, Chakaia Booker (with Ekoi [Ejagham] Mask in background)

Willie Cole, Chakaia Booker (with Ekoi [Ejagham] Mask in background)

Merton Simpson, "Untitled (Confrontation Series C), 1963

Merton Simpson, “Untitled (Confrontation Series C), 1963

Simpson’s own painting, a bifurcated mask-like face, exemplifies this gender bending, racially blurred, historically muddied dualization of identity. It anchors the show to these metahistories with a colonializing nod to its German Expressionist predecessors. Ben Jones’s Jazz era heroes and civil rights activists inevitably remind the viewer of the passage these conceptual threads had to take to get from Africa to the Americas.

The threatening/alluring ambivalences of gender and racial identity are familiar waters to the African artifacts. Masks like the almost Medusan Mende Female Figure would have been ritualistically carved by the hands of a man to be worn by a single, specific woman. These are not anonymous, faceless generalities, but precise narratives of personal rights of passage, gender duality, and societal construction. This is echoed in Mehdi Georges Lahlou’s gender bending diptych or Adrienne Wheeler’s cast papier-mâché Njorowe Pregnant Belly Masks.

Mehdi Georges Lahlou, "Sans Titre Haut et Bas (Diptych)" 2009 | Adrienne Wheeler, "Njorowe Pregnant Belly Masks" 2012-15 with Makonde Initiation Mask

Mehdi Georges Lahlou, “Sans Titre Haut et Bas (Diptych)” 2009 | Adrienne Wheeler, “Njorowe Pregnant Belly Masks” 2012-15 with Makonde Initiation Mask

Tributaries that they are, references to water pour from one item to the next into a confluence of pan-African social memory. After all, it is said in West African traditions that our ancestors live in the waters. Yet, far from belonging to the rivers of the past, the animus of these masks is very much alive today. Even as we speak, new masks are being crafted and donned, and this exhibition proves their far reaching impact in co-shaping Diasporic experience in the most seemingly unlikely places. The deft collaboration between the Simpson collection and the chosen artists historicizes the contemporary and contemporizes the historical. It’s enough to make Heraclitus drink his words as we seem to step in all parts of the river simultaneously, for all time.

Participating artists: Chakaia Booker, Lucien Clergue, Willie Cole, Robert Lach, Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, So Yoon Lym, Ben Jones, Merton Simpson, Charlee Swanson, Adejoke Tugbiyele, Margaret Rose Vendryes and Adrienne Wheeler.

Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University

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