FACE to FACE: Mask exhibit looks beneath an ancient tradition

A huge gilded mirror at the entrance of “Brilliant Disguise: Masks and Other Transformations” brings visitors face-to-face with themselves — an apt introduction to the revelations to come at the new exhibit housed at the Contemporary Art Center through June 16.

“I wanted people to think about how they view themselves as personages as they walk through the exhibit, how do we dress, how do we carry ourselves, and what we show or not show,” said Miranda Lash, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

“Masks” challenges the visitor to rethink identity, culture, beauty, history and the art form itself. The exhibit features works that capture masks in varying forms and mediums from Africa, ancient Greece, Asia, Haiti, India and Japan, and traces the evolution of masking.

“I wanted to do a show with contemporary themes with living artists who use art from other periods,” Lash said.

The varied and distinctive approaches both raise and answer philosophical questions. Lash said the exhibit deals with such themes as a desire to be someone else, wanting to assume another identity or the possibility that the person wearing the mask wants to be more like their true self or be more “free.”

The latter is especially true in the New Orleans Carnival tradition, Lash said.

Some of the most striking pieces include the work of the late mask artisan Mike Starks, Mardi Gras Indian chief Victor Harris (Fi-Yi-Yi), images of manga and costumed role-playing among Asian teens, a host of Carnival masks from the 1920s and a “shame” mask from the early 1800s, an iron, cage-like frame designed to fit over the face with holes for shackles.

The exhibit also showcases two short films — a choreographed dance sequence by Yinka Shonibare that incorporates both African and European symbolism to explore cultural fusion and a psychological treatise on “telling secrets” as one wears a mask, by Gillian Wearing.

“Contemporary (art) is not in a vacuum, it’s very rich. It’s important to look at it in the context of history,” Lash said. “It’s also a spiritual quest, a way of protecting yourself and not exposing yourself to judgment or shame.”

Artists and pieces were selected from various collections, particularly NOMA and Louisiana State Museum, which has explored different configurations of masks over the years.

“Masks” is a collaborative exhibition between NOMA and the CAC, the first of two planned for 2013. Louisiana residents can visit the exhibit free of charge with proper identification.