The Musical Instrument Museum is highlighting the power of masks with a new exhibition called “Congo Masks and Music: Masterpieces from Central Africa.” The exhibit includes more than 150 masks, musical instruments, and costumes.
The continent of Africa is composed of more than 50 countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo. With this exhibit, the MIM encourages visitors to explore the diversity of African cultures while embracing the ways music is a shared human impulse.
“We want to celebrate the richness of different traditions and cultures,” Manuel Jordán says of the exhibit. He’s the museum’s deputy director and chief curator.
The exhibit includes a dozen mannequins that display costumes worn during masquerade performance, plus video footage of masquerade ceremonies in the Congo.
The videos help to set these objects in their cultural context, according to Marc Felix. Felix heads the Congo Basin Art History Research Center in Belgium, and serves on the MIM board of directors.
Jordán and Felix curated “Congo Masks and Music,” which continues through September 13, 2020. Felix organized a similar exhibit focused on Congo masks, which was recently shown at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. And he’s the primary lender for the MIM show.
The MIM exhibit is a rare opportunity to see African cultural objects in Arizona. “We don’t see a lot of African material culture and point of view in Phoenix,” Jordán says.
Even so, the exhibit comes amid wider discussions within the art world about colonialism and object acquisition.
Last December, the Africa Museum in Belgium reopened after undertaking significant changes meant to address its colonial roots. Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960, by the way. Several instruments in this exhibit are on long-term loan from that museum.
Here, curators focus on the exhibited masks and musical instruments, elucidating their central role in both historical and contemporary Congolese culture without addressing wider concerns.
Museum visitors can explore instruments from other parts of Africa in the Africa and Middle East Gallery, one of five geographic galleries at the MIM.
A large-scale map highlighting numerous regions within the Congo hangs inside the exhibit, suggesting some of the ways mask styles vary in different parts of the country.
“We’re trying to tell the stories of over 500 political groups,” Jordán says of the exhibit.
Most of the masks are made with wood and pigment. Some include additional elements, such fiber, animal teeth, and colorful beads. Text panels posted on gallery walls explain some of the reasons for these variations.
The exhibit reminds viewers that no county is monolithic, while highlighting the heterogeneity of African cultures.
But it also prompts reflection on masks in other cultures, including indigenous and Latino cultures prevalent in the American Southwest.
Several permanent exhibits at the MIM include masks and related artifacts from other parts of the globe.
“There’s a great deal of diversity among masks in different cultures,” Jordán says. “But I see more similarities than disparities.”
“Congo Masks and Music: Masterpieces from Central Africa” continues through September 13, 2020, at the Musical Instrument Museum. Museum admission is $20, plus $7 if you also want to see “Congo Masks and Music.” Tickets to see just the “Congo Masks and Music” exhibit are $10. Visit mim.org.
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