African museum explores culture with masks in LIC

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At first glance, the masks that sit encased in glass at the Museum for African Art’s new temporary exhibition space in Long Island City appear frozen in time, peering eerily into patrons’ eyes from faces carved in wood.

But the wide-screen television hanging on the wall at the gallery’s entrance shows costumed dancers spinning feverishly in a mesmerizing display of athletic bravado, giving a brief taste of what cannot be captured in the exhibit, “Facing the Mask.”

Masks do not stand still — not in real life, anyhow.

“In the exhibition nothing moves, while in reality it’s an extremely dynamic thing that’s going on,” said the show’s curator, Frank Herreman, as he toured the space Friday afternoon, one day before its public opening and ribbon cutting.

The Museum for African Art opened its doors at 36-01 43rd Ave. in Long Island City at 11 a.m. Saturday for its admission-free opening weekend, inaugurating the space that will house the 18-year-old museum for the next four years until its permanent home on Manhattan’s Museum Mile is completed.

“We had a lot of traffic both days,” said the museum’s deputy director, Anne Stark, who estimated that about 900 people visited over the weekend. “I think that’s pretty good for people just finding out that we’re there. It was really everything we hoped for.”

The museum joins a distinguished and growing list of art institutions that have cropped up in Long Island City on either a temporary or permanent basis. The Noguchi Museum occupies the space one floor below the African museum in the same converted factory building, while MoMA QNS on Queens Boulevard and 33rd Street opened this summer and will house exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art until its 53rd Street home is renovated by 2005.

The neighborhood also is the longtime home of the PS 1 Contemporary Arts Center, the American Museum of the Moving Image and the Socrates Sculpture Park.

“Facing the Mask,” the museum’s first show in Long Island City, was designed to offer a point of entry to patrons who may be unfamiliar with African art and culture.

“I tried to make a show where it would be possible to have maximum accessibil­ity,” Herreman said.

“Facing the Mask” explores the masks created by more than three dozen African cultures from the standpoint of both function — how they affect people’s lives — as well as the aesthetics of their form and design.

The mask is much more than a facial covering, Herreman stressed. Although the museum mainly showcases the head portions, they are part of an elaborate costume that covers the entire body. More importantly, many African cultures believe that masks are the physical embodiment of a spirit, and the act of wearing the mask brings the spirit to the person beneath it.

“When they’re wearing the mask, they become something else,” Herreman said. “They become the spirit they incarnate.”

The masks range in style from intense realism — including one with a face covered in goat skin and a head adorned with real human hair — to extremely abstract representations with eyes fashioned from cylinders.

One mask climbs about six feet above the wearer’s head, while another sits on a pile of banana leaves descending to the ground in a wide arc that looks more like a hut than an outfit.

“It really gives you an idea how imposing the masks can be,” Herreman said.

The exhibition pays particular attention to children, offering opportunities for them to immerse themselves in African cultures and get hands-on exposure to the masks.

A small boxlike room set in the center of the gallery recreates a shrine of the Yoruba people, who create full-body masks called egungun from multiple pieces of brightly colored fabrics that look like a patchwork quilt with a mesh panel for the face. Children are instructed to sit on a series of straw mats in front of three figures clothed in the egungun and reflect on their own ancestors, which the people who wear the egungun are said to represent.

Meanwhile, a table has been set aside for children to create masks of their own.

“We want kids to really feel like they can come in and get close to it,” Stark said.

The museum is open Monday, Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:23 pm, October 10, 2011
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