As part of their professional practice course Digital Arts Interactive Media students constructed a series of four installations in a collaboration with WAM for the Activate / Captivate exhibition. The exhibition will be up till mid February 2016.
The students installations are a response to an invitation from WAM to interactively and digitally engage a collection of masks. Outside of the museum context African masks are actively used and even displayed according to particular societal and cultural norms. The challenge to the MA in Interactive Media students was to respond to the performative qualities of the masks, and furthermore overcome the challenges found in how the Museum’s archival and displaying practices limit a performed and sense driven encounter with these masks. After alot of research and inquiry into the histories of the mask, the students chose to design and build four digitally interactive installations that not only speak to the original contexts of the masks, but allow audience members to interact in a way that would both brings meaning to the interaction and inspires creativity.
Wits Art Museum states the following:
“In their original context, each mask displayed was only a small part of a spectacular costume worn by dancers, who were themselves part of a larger performance. No longer accompanied by the music, aromas or movement that accompanied these performances, a large part of the original artwork is no longer apparent. Now that the masks are part of the WAM collection, displaying them as they would have been experienced is almost impossible (nor necessarily appropriate). “
The following briefly outlines from each student’s perspective, each installation and how it enacts meaning with the mask via digital interactivity.
The Secrets of the Komo Society Mask
In it’s original context, the Komo Society Mask belongs to a secret society. It is taboo for the uninitiated to ever view the mask. This is the case when the mask is being performed or simply viewed. Simply seeing the mask is considered extremely dangerous for the viewer.
This ban and culture around keeping the mask secret and away from the sight of the uninitiated is in sharp contrast to a how the museum chooses to display the mask. It is seen as an archival artifact and generally displayed under bright lighting; which aims to make it look overly clean and clinical. One must question however, how the mask which in it’s original context would never be on display, should be displayed in the museum.
Displaying an artwork which has been completely isolated from its original context in a respectful and sensitive manner is a difficult task. In this project I questioned whether it should be displayed at all and I want to challenge viewers, making viewing the mask a difficult challenge – something that needed to be earned rather than given.
I placed curtains around the mask. These remained open if there was little activity around the mask. But with the held of sensors, would close as soon as they detect someone’s presence, essentially concealing the mask from sight if someone tried to view it too closely.
The mask installation is also able to send out tweets when the curtain opens and closes. These tweets contain quotes which give the viewer some context to the mask’s original use, as well as questioning the display of the mask in a museum. Visitors are encouraged to tweet their thoughts and responses to #KomoSocietyMask, or @KomoSocietyMask.
By Katherine Donald
Sickness and Mortality in the Mbangu Mask
Until the late 20th century, among the KiPende-speaking people in the DRC, the Mbangu mask was a feared symbol: its performance and display were meant to impart the important moral message that bad behaviour would anger the spirits, leading to punishment and disease, no matter what status one held within the community,
This interactive installation plays tribute to the performance and display of the Mbangu sickness mask that can no longer be experienced in the museum context. Tell the mask about the last time you were ill, and you will receive a sentence from the song that was originally sung when the mask was performed.
The work consists of an interface that allows people to enter the last time they were sick and receive an answer from the Mbangu Sickness Mask. People can mention the mask on Twitter, their tweet will then be displayed on the interface and the mask’s account will reply to them on Twitter. The replies are from the song that was sung during a ceremony performed by the KiPendespekaing people in the DRC.
By Will Saunders
Myth and Magic of the Zambele Mask
Originating from the Guro community of the Ivory Coast, the Zamb(e)le mask is made up of a number of animal-like features. Being farmers, the Guro community revere animals, specifically the leopard, antelope, hyena and crocodile. Each of these animals are admired for different qualities and it is these qualities that make up the mask in a way that they feel symbolically represents ‘Zamble’, their ideal person.
Displaying African masks in museum spaces are problematic as the masks have been removed from their original contexts, to be displayed in a way that was not initially intended. Not only does this detract from the aura of the masks but it additionally means that the masks cannot be performed in the manner for which they were created. I decided to focus on ‘touch’ as I believe that by allowing museum viewers to physically touch and interact with works the artwork, the mask can be experienced and understood on a more personal and intimate level. The interactive exhibit which I created for the Zamb(e)le mask consists of a 3D printed replica of the original mask. This 3D replica houses three capacitive touch sensors which activate animations explaining the symbolic meaning behind each animal feature when touched. This interaction results in an intimate experience and admiration of the mask and activates the symbolism and true meaning behind the mask in a performative way, which cannot be achieved by simply placing the mask on the white museum wall.
By Chane Haarhoff
Descriptive Encounter with the Mask Collection
We created created a unifying website for the installation which can be used in the museum space or accessed from home at this web address: masks.digitalarts.wits.ac.za
The website provides a summary of each student’s research about the various masks currently on display at WAM, and presents this information alongside photographs of the artworks.
In the museum, the website is be navigated using an interactive board and a iconic token. By moving the token onto the image of the mask you would like to read about, you can bring up the related information on the screen. The same interaction is possible at home with your mouse and keyboard.
We feel that the website provides a context for the other engagements in our installation and allows museum visitors who are interested about the masks to find out more about them.
By Amy van der Houten and Nathaniel Mokoena