Monash University

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Absence of the African mask in western museums

posted on 2017-02-21, 23:30 authored by Berkoh, Samual Obeng
There is a dearth of representation of the African mask that exists in the cultural spaces of Western museums. This is not merely a colonial legacy but a contemporary occurrence that museums grapple with. Accordingly, several African theorists have long implied that there is an 'absence' of the African mask in Western museums and public displays of social pluralism and hybridity. These nascent hypotheses severally reflect the sharp dichotomy existing between theirs [Africans] and Western perception of museum display. Such thinking is fueled by Western misunderstandings of African arts and crafts ~ contextualized within media platforms as discrepant and ideologically insignificant. The complex societal roles of these artifacts - masks - and the lives of their crafters are largely out of the range of scholarly discourse in museum. Scholars such as Frederick Lamp, Susan Vogel, Robert Farris Thompson, and Herbert Cole are among a group of theorists who scrutinize the notion of 'absence', examining it under the umbrellas of performance, motion (Farris 1974], "involvement" [Gallery 2004) and "original context" [Vogel 1991: 15]. They stand in contrast to certain Western perceptions that categorize such craftsmanship under unflattering labels like 'Primitive Art'l21 or bucolic, "archaic" [Eisenhofer 2010: 13] art. Hence the inherent dialogues of the artifacts [themselves) and their purveyors- who are in fact cultural agents- are subjected to intellectual oblivion. These interventions from theorist have had enormous impression on museum curators. In the past, there have been some curatorial measures [Savage 2008) that attempted to atone for the absence and to bring in some presence. These efforts have come from theorist, artists and curators. However, there is still more to do due to the complex nature of the mask and the new environment it finds itself in. The objective of the study is to locate important gaps in current discourse on Western museums and public spaces, subjecting them to critique and making significant design contributions. My design solutions relies on digital based animation and motion graphic techniques, with the intent of producing video based installations. The designs re-embody the visual, emotional and spiritual content of the African masks for a contemporary audience. The potential of digital mediai3J - video and audio which incorporates motion graphics and digital effects has been enhanced worldwide to narrate the stories we enjoy in movies. This can be exploited to narrate the stories behind the African masks from the African perspective. My design solution employs 20, 30, audio, video and animation to design a user experience that create lasting impression on the audience. It employs a synthesis of the African perspective [which utilizes the conceptual frameworks in a critical discourse) with the conventional Western theoretical and aesthetic knowledge. The end results are video installations through projections some of which offer a certain level of user interactions.


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Principal supervisor

Jeffrey Janet

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre



Master of Fine Art

Degree Type



Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture

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