UNMASKED: Spirit In The City Comes To Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum

UNMASKED: Spirit In The City Comes To Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum

A new exhibition and installation by artist Zina Saro-Wiwa and anthropologist David Pratten is coming to the Pitt Rivers Museum January 28, 2023 – January 7, 2024.

UNMASKED Spirit in the City is a daring new exhibition that explores the personal stories behind modern day masquerade in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. It questions traditional museology and reveals the costumed dancers and their emotional and financial worlds.

Masquerade is a public spectacle based on disguise. It conceals and resists knowledge. In many ways it is unknowable. In ethnographic museums like the Pitt Rivers Museum, masks are presented as if they reveal the mysteries of a culture and its cosmology. Museums keep them in glass showcases and provide them with explanatory labels.

As a result, African masks are often presented as static symbols of the identity and material culture of rural communities from times past. But masking has always been relevant, reflecting the times in which it is performed and the landscapes – including cities – that masked spirits encounter.

A collaboration between Port Harcourt-born British-Nigerian artist Zina Saro-Wiwa and Oxford anthropologist David Pratten, exposed tells a very different story about the meaning of masquerade. The show focuses on a modern urban masquerade tradition called Agaba, which is made up of young and middle-aged men who often work in the underbelly of Port Harcourt society but use masquerade as a way to express themselves, make money and to ensure social cohesion protection.

The Agaba is one of the enduring masquerades of the Niger Delta oil-producing region of Nigeria. It’s open-air theatre: loud, boisterous and haunting. On the surface, agaba masking allows the men who make up the group to display a tough, masculine identity that is physically, politically, and spiritually “tough,” but exposed shows that behind the mask, in the songs they sing and in the bedrooms they dream in, these men reflect on their destiny in intimate and wry ways.

It is striking how many of the songs sung by these men and boys are tender, tongue-in-cheek love songs that contrast with the “bad boy” image of urban masquerades as well as the drier taxonomic presentations of masquerade culture in Western museums.

Using the songs, mask carving and performance, the storytelling in this exhibition weaves art and anthropology, creating an expansive visual language that reveals the vitality and vulnerability of life in modern Port Harcourt, which is deeply affected – and often traumatic – by the international oil and gas industry.

Zina Saro-Wiwa’s large new installation used film and audio to bring these stories to life Bad boys and broken hearts, is inspired by David Pratten’s insights into the nature of urban masquerade songs and continues her own work exploring emotional landscapes and the intersection with masquerade culture. Instead of the usual museum displays of Masquerade culture artifacts, the installation features two large showcases containing life-size replicas of the actual bedrooms of two Port Harcourt Agaba Masquerades.

These spatial landscapes, outfitted with clothing and objects donated by the featured men, are a poignant reflection on power, poverty, strength and vulnerability. Exploring the spiritual ecologies of the oil-drenched Niger Delta of her birth, the artist asks, “Is there an enduring sense of the socio-political heartbreak lying at the heart of the Niger Delta experience? And does this societal mourning manifest itself in the bodies and cultural performances of its citizens?”

Anthropologist David Pratten of the University of Oxford says: “By working with Zina and by combining anthropology and contemporary art exposed tells a new story of masquerade, tenderness and everyday tragedy in the personal and political.”

exposed guides us through the glass case to reveal the beating heart of humanity that created the mask. It shows that the mysteries of the Masquerade are not essential and esoteric, but elusive and commonplace. Capturing the universal feelings of love, joy and hope, combined with stories of loss, fear and heartbreak, the exhibition examines how masking is an art form of the urban present, and speaks about hopes and hurts of the present day.

About Zina Saro-Wiwa

Zina Saro-Wiwa is a multidisciplinary artist working with video installation, sound, photography, film, distillation, food and institution building. Her areas of interest are primarily environmentalism, spiritual ecologies, emotional landscapes, and the nature of power. She is dedicated to exploring how earth-based wisdoms challenge power dynamics and foster creativity. She runs her own non-profit Mangrove Arts Foundation, which uses arts, culture, food and agriculture projects, including her Illicit Gin Institute project, to change the fate of the oil-cursed Niger Delta. She is also working on her first feature film titled Eucharist.

About David Pratten

David Pratten is a social anthropologist and currently Head of the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at Oxford University. His main research interests are history, violence and oil culture in Nigeria. The focus of his first work was a historical ethnography of colonialism, centered on the events surrounding a series of mysterious deaths in south-eastern Nigeria in the late 1940s. More recently, his research has addressed issues of youth, democracy and disorder in post-colonial Nigeria, with a particular focus on vigilante justice and new masquerade performances. His recent research examines the relationship between popular culture and the oil economy in a cultural history of Port Harcourt in a project called The Arts of Oil.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford is one of the world’s leading museums of anthropology, ethnography and archaeology. Founded in 1884, it now has over 700,000 objects in its collections and is one of the top 100 most visited museums in the UK, welcoming nearly half a million visitors in 2019. Creative programs of reinvention and reinterpretation showcasing a much-loved Victorian space that challenges perceptions and the demonstrates the important role that museums can play in contemporary society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *