Celestial Masks by Hervé Youmbi at Sculpture Projects Münster 2017
Every ten years since 1977, the Skulptur Projekte has been offering a special exhibition experience: Artists develop site-specific works for Münster—sculptures, but also video installations or performances. These projects inscribe themselves in the city’s structural, historical and social contexts while at the same time pointing beyond its boundaries. The artistic explorations are as much concerned with issues of the global present and reflections on the concept of sculpture as with questions about the relationship between public and private space in times of increasing digitalization.
Skulptur Projekte Münster is considered one of the world’s most important exhibition dedicated to sculpture and public art. It was launched in 1977, and its artistic director since the very first edition has always been Kasper König. This year, the co-curators are Britta Peters and Marianne Wagner. From 10 June to 1 October 2017, the fifth edition of the Skulptur Projekte will show thirty-five new artistic productions.
Cameroonian artist Hervé Youmbi (1973-) presents the project Celestial Masks in the area of the Überwasser cemetery, a medieval Christian burial site. His Masks are either suspended among the trees or mounted on them.
In a clear and playful way Hervé Youmbi deals with the long and problematic history of Western modernity with masks from the African continent. He contradicts the idea of a singular identity, using objects and an iconographic, hybrid system of forms taken from Western pop cultures as well as from precolonial and colonial art production in West and Central Africa. At the same time his projects powerfully critique the global art market, the spaces and practices to which it gives rise, and the larger, late-capitalist system to which they collectively belong.
Hervé Youmbi talked to Eleni Zymaraki about his installation currently presented at Sculpture Projeckte Münster 2017 and how this connects with his earlier ongoing projects – Totems to Haunt Our Dreams, Visages de masques – related to African masks.
Your installation Celestial Masks for Münster consists of eight “African” masks suspended among the trees in the area of the Überwasser cemetery.
Is this installation generated and connected with your Visage de Masques (2015) project? Could you explain their connection for us further?
Yes! There is a strong relationship between Visages de Masques and Les Masques Celestes projects. Both are based on realization of hybrids masks made principally with wood and beads, two particular element of classic African mask.
Both projects took the form of installation. The first is an installation of hybrid masks suspended around wood crates emblazed by images of classical African masks belonging to particular collections and museums from USA and Europe. This work set up the impact of colonization on production of African mask during the post colonial period. It is also an invitation to think at what could be the aesthetic of ritual mask at Africa today, at the period of globalization?
The second work is an outdoor installation made by hybrid masks floating on top of graves in Überwasser cemetery, an old Christian graveyard. This work highlights the question of vanity by questioning us about the importance of our different modes of belief in our relationship with death and the supreme being. This, through the connection of two strong symbols belonging to two distinct modes of belief: Christianity and Animism.
One of the most important aspect of Visages de Masques project is to introduce, after they have been exhibited, some of the hybrid masks of the installation in the ritual universe at west region of Cameroon. By doing that, I provide the ritual universe with contemporary art work. Masquerade used in ritual universe in Africa is related to classic African believes. By doing that, I provide the ritual universe with contemporary art work. At Überwasser cemetery, contemporary hybrid masks made in the traditional technic of classic African masks were introduced into a graveyard, a strong area of European believe. This is the principal connection between those two projects.
How would you define the identity of these masks? And what is their role? What are the issues you wish to raise with your works involving “African” masks?
The eight masks of the installation Les Masques Celestes are hybrid masks. They are made by association of several aesthetics mainly of classic African masks but also of non African masks. You have a crocodile mask from Dogon (Mali) with horns of Ku’ngang mask Bamiléké (Cameroon); An Elephant mask (Cameroon), surmounted by a buffalo mask (Bobo-Burkina Faso); A large hybrid mask made of a human skull topped by a gélédé mask (Youruba-Nigeria and Benin) wearing a large two-headed snake (totemic representation used in several country in Africa) framing a scream mask (USA). The whole is overhung by a kota reliquary (Gabon).
In the serial of those masks, scream mask is frequent. My hybrid African masks incorporate the “Ghostface” Halloween mask. “Ghostface” in the West is a horror-movie character, based on Edvard Munch’s famous 1893 painting “The Scream,” which expresses anxiety, and Ghostface is now a popular mask for scaring people on Halloween, a festival with pagan roots.
Made in China for Halloween event (USA), the “Ghostface” masks also have become incorporated into “traditional” masquerades in Africa where they are both entertaining and can have a spiritual function. Scream mask is easily incorporate in Africa mascarade because it’s an expressive skull. Expressivity is one of the basic features of African sculpture. The human skull is the strong symbol of belief in Classic Africa religion. For the installation in Münster I juxtapose African and European ideas about death and spirituality. My commentary emerges from African masks attached to trees adjacent to a Christian graveyard at Überwasser near of Münster castle. The gravestones are virtually permanent, enduring; they are grey and somber, they include the names of the dead chiseled into the stone. In contrast, the masks are carved from wood, which is regarded in most African cultures as possessing life-force or spirit, like humans, and subject to decay. The African masks are adorned with brightly colored and valuable beads that help invite deceased spirits to enter the masks, to animate them, and to dance with the living during ceremonies and celebrations. In European imagination, the world of the dead and of spirits is often a zone of fear—thus the horror genre in Western imagination that deals with ghosts, vengeful spirits, and zombies. The deceased person, in Christian thought, has departed to a spiritual realm where the living might eventually reunite with them after death. This Christian framework was grafted on top of, and displaced, earlier pagan beliefs that were more nature-based, and often included considering the forest as a spiritual place.
By bringing together these two differing sets of beliefs about spirituality, I invite visitors of the installation to contemplate similarity and difference in belief and practice, as well as cultural hybridity. Hybrid masks of celestial masks installation are made for a particular ritual. The one to which they are participating since they are floating on gravestones at medieval Christian cemetery.
How did you choose the medieval Christian cemetery as the ideal settlement for your masks?
In July of last year (2016), I was invited by the curatorial team of the Munster sculpture project to visit the city of Munster in order to propose my project of work. While we were visiting the small cemetery near the botanical garden of the castle of Munster, Clara Napp, assistant curator of the festival and our guide, asked me what is our relationship, we Africans, to the dead. This question has rekindled in my memories the project “faces of masks” on which I work. Clara’s question also prompted me to initiate a dialogue between masks as elements of African beliefs and, on the other hand, crosses and sculptures of tombstones as elements of Western beliefs. A dialogue between the strong symbols of the Christian religion and those of the so-called animist religion. The answer to the question posed by Clara Napp has been at the origin of the choice of the cemetery as places of presentation of my work.
What initiated your interest and engagement with masks in order to made them an integral part of your visual language?
It is about twenty years since the mask interests me as a subject of artistic creation. Originally from the western region of Cameroon, I have always been in contact with the mask through events that I had to attend. However, there are two strong points that justify my interest in the mask as the subject of my plastic creation. The first highlight is the understanding of the culture of the mask as the main vector of the memory of life in my continent of origin. During my academic training, I discovered that the history of art that we received focuses on the history of Western art. My interest in classical African art led me to masks which helped me discover the cultural richness of Africa: its beliefs, customs… My first realizations concerning the mask are from the beginning of the 1990s.
The second highlight that will be the real trigger of my interest in the mask as a subject of my artistic creation is the discovery of the use of elastomeric masks coming from Europe and USA in different cultural events in Africa. I was given the opportunity to see masks prefiguring western witches or heroes of Hollywood movies such as King Kong and the scream mask during the performance of masked dances on the occasion of important ritual manifestations in the west Cameroon. As a producer of signs and symbols in the field of visual art, I confess of being challenged by this observation and invited to try to find an answer to a key question: What could be the aesthetics and function of the ritual mask in Africa today? Visages de Masques project initiated in 2010 is an attempt to answer this question.
The mask is the very first African artistic expression to have been internationally recognized, and today, it is for several contemporary visual artists from Africa, a subject that is clichéd and which must be freed. For those who dare to approach it, it must be noted that the treatment they make of the subject is essentially aesthetic. This is why I wanted to go beyond the aesthetic aspect of the subject by addressing the question of its function. Some hybrid masks realized within the framework of this project are integrated into the real ritual universe in West Cameroon after having been exposed as a contemporary art work. I take the opposite course of the classical African masks which make the pride of the Western museums and privates collections. These masks there began their life as ritual object before ending as an object of collection and exhibition.
In our days, more than five masks made through Visages de Masques project are living definitively as ritual object.
Over the last years there is a growing interest in contemporary African art within the global art scene and market; does that interest affect –and in what ways- African cultures and traditions?
The growing interest of the world art scene and the art market in contemporary African creation galvanizes the actors of art who work from inside and outside for the visibility and recognition of the current creation made by the Africans. The visibility and the recognition of contemporary African creation on the world artistic scene would be synonymous of getting out of the ghetto of the world art to finally belong to the center.
The advent of colonization with its civilizing mission was a hard blow to the African culture and traditions that have never gone so badly. From my point of view, the interest in contemporary African creation certainly contributes to the enhancement of African culture and traditions. Because the interest put on this continent invites its artists who had looks directed to the elsewhere, to its rediscovery and its re-enchantment.
What are your thoughts each time you encounter traditional African art in Western museums today?
The sight of classical African art in Western museums is always an extraordinary moment because it’s not always given to me to see these objects as I see them in these museum institutes. Here in Africa, these are not objects that are made to be exposed. They are only seen when they are in “life”, that mean in their ritual or usual function. Masks for example, are seen only the time of the dance performance. It is therefore always a real pleasure to be able to admire at length and in detail the objects belonging to the classic African art in the western museums. The interest of the West in these objects is essentially aesthetic. And on this point, the aesthetics of these objects belong to the past. It is therefore important that the ritual universe in Africa produce new objects. The most intense thoughts that inhabit me when I discover African classic art objects in Western museums are related to the need to produce new ethics of masks that would be closely related to the practical reality of rituals or life today. It is this thought that is also behind the project Faces of Masks that I have been conducting for a few years.
Which are the top five art works you have seen recently?
This is a very difficult question to answer. For a short period of time I was in Muenster for the Münster sculpture project and in Kassel for the Documenta 14, without forgetting the museum exhibitions seen in Berlin and Paris. Establishing a ranking of the five best works over three hundred works of high quality is almost impossible. I will content myself with quoting the first five works that come to my mind.
– On water by Ayse Erkmen for Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017,
– Sketch for a Fountain by Nicole Eisenman Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017,
– Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument (Monument for Strangers and Refugees) by Olu Oguibe, Documenta 14,
– The Chess Society by Bili Bidjocka, Documenta 14,
– The Parthenon of Books by Marta Minujin, Documenta 14.
Hervé Youmbi, http://www.axisgallery.com/Axis_Gallery/Youmbi_CV.html
Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017, https://www.skulptur-projekte.de/#/