Culture December 6, 2021

Exhibition on African masks in the Hermitage Museum closes this week

A temporary exhibition «Transfigurations. African Masks of the 19th and 20th Centuries» showcasing the rich variety of African ritual and ceremonial masks of the XIX and XX centuries in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is about to close on Sunday after being more than a half year on display.

More than a hundred items have been selected for the exposition, which demonstrate the diversity of forms, adherence to traditions and the ideological potential of masks. The exhibition is based on the collections of the Hermitage, the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Kunstkamera) and private collections. The exhibition curator is Alexei Aksioshin, a junior researcher in the State Hermitage’s Department of the East. 

As the director of the museum Mikhail Piotrovsky noted during the opening of the exhibition in June 2021, the events of 2020–2021 renewed the status of the mask — and turned it into a symbol of everyday life: «Masks have suddenly become a part of everyday life. The mask exists in different civilizations, it is part of human culture, it has many different functions. <…> And the mask brings new aesthetic moments into our life — there are different beautiful masks. A mask is a prerequisite for visiting the Hermitage, and a mask is what makes us look closely at our eyes, and they almost never lie».

Though masks of West African ethnic groups predominate the exhibition, there are masks of Makonde (Tanzania and Mozambique) and Songye people (Democratic Republic of Congo), Benin Bronzes and textiles are among objects on display as well. The diverse collection of Ciwara (or tyi wara kun in Bamana language) headdresses of Bamana (or Bambara) people deserves special attention.

Zoomorphic Ponyugo Mask-Helmet
Mali – Côte d’Ivoire. First half of the 20th century. Source: The Hermitage.

It is worth mentioning that in recent years the Hermitage has been showing a steady interest towards African art. On 13 April 2017, in the General Staff building of the State Hermitage, the permanent display of «The Art of the Peoples of Africa» was inaugurated.

Prior to that, as the Hermitage states, African art was for a long time practically unrepresented in the Hermitage. The situation began to change only in the 1980s. In 1988, Vladimir Arsenyev, a world-renowned specialist in African studies from Russian Kunstkamera, presented the Hermitage with two items – a figure of a female fertility deity and a mask from Mali. That gift became a turning point.

Currently, in addition to the Hermitage vast collection on Ancient Egypt, there are two temporary exhibitions on Egypt: «The Mummy Changes its Name» and «Egypt in the Hermitage. After mummies». Those are being held within the framework of The year of Russian-Egyptian Humanitarian Cooperation.

Source: The Hermitage