Maskerade – Exhibition Review

by Bridget Thompson

Review of ‘Maskerade’ by Lionel Davis, Association of Visual Arts, August 2009.
This text was originally published on Davis’ artist page on asai.co.za, August 2009.

Lionel Davis is for the first time at 70 plus working as a full- time artist.

His life has traversed childhood and youth in District 6, political activism and imprisonment on Robben Island, two years of art training at Rorke’s Drift, many contributions to the social practice of art like running the Community Arts Project silkscreen workshop for 8 years, participating in the annual Thupelo workshops for more than 20 years, formal study at UCT where he gained a BAFA in 1995, back to Robben Island as a tour guide for 10 years and now finally full time artist.

His work reminds us of the experiences whích shape the identities of individuals and the culture of a collective in the complex mix of people that have found themselves in Cape Town over the past 3 and half centuries. A suppressed aspect of that collective’s voice is rising up in Lionel’s work in this ground breaking exhibition. It is the first to overtly connect Cape Culture with Africa and the African diaspora through the medium of the mask. It reflects a lifetime’s journey away from the pain and shame of being “too” dark skinned in District 6 into a celebration of all that this dark skinned heritage connotes and more.

Recently in the Caribbean I showed a documentary on Cape music, which naturally featured a lot of carnival footage. The response was an astonished “so they have ‘mas’ there too?” I was in turn struck at how easily the term mas’ or mask was linked to carnival by Caribbeans. It s not quite the same here where there has been a tortured naming and renaming from coons to minstrels, not forgetting the term favoured by participants, klopse. Yet the essence of carnival, the term mask, has not been part of this naming game.

Davis’ portraits of individuals are constructed from collages of tiny pieces of paper layered next to each other creating dimensions, shadows, curves and facial features with momentary expressions captured in a mask of facial rigor mortis. Here masking reveals more than it hides.

A group of works on Cape Carnival using variously collage, ink and paint and netting covering one image called transformation seems to speak to the pain of despised heritages which are masked in the Cape Carnival.

The silkscreens created in the artist’s studio over the past two decades in a spontaneous process of using up excess ink from screens are intriguing. Images apparently disconnected are layered over others but the artist almost magically arrived at unified pictures in which it seems he references all the traditions of masking relevant to his life.

Drawing from his subconscious in this way he, in one instance portrays the Klopse, familiar from his narrative linocuts of earlier years, in their uniforms and marching formations as a foundation image to a looser freer movement of people, some masked in traditional African masks yet seemingly with the same gestures, energy and intensity of the klopse voorloper.

Davis seems to be saying that his own distinct Cape heritage is at one and the same time a distinctly West African heritage. The narrative stories of a particular community in his earlier work transmute into a deeper universal imagery. The artist’s subconscious preceded his conscious intent by two decades for in his statement he speaks about a deliberate process, just a year old, of researching his heritage and uncovering the story of his Sierra Leonian Great Grandfather.

Davis’ own self portrait, has a map of District 6 on one side of his face and images of African people he found during his second sojourn on Robben Island layered over an aerial view of Robben Island on the other.

His first experience on Robben Island as a political prisoner was the first time he shared an everyday life and deep common bond with people brought up within African culture. An experience he describes as ‘beautiful’.

Lionel’s close friend the artist and writer Peter Clarke opened the exhibition. In his talk it seemed that Lionel’s unmasking provoked the release of memories long contained by Peter Clarke. He spoke about his own experiences of being arrested and beaten for not having a pass when he went to buy meat at the local butcher for his mother. Together they invited us to look more closely at our society and reminded us of where we have come from and the continent we live on.

It is timeous and appropriate that the elders in our community should play the lead in bringing this well known, but not yet public, discourse about identity into the open.

The exhibition draws our attention to the multiple meanings of mask: the psychological masking of an individual, the social role of mask in carnival at the Cape and the deep African heritage of mask as ritual, communication and celebration, an individual and a social process of masking and unmasking thereby bringing ‘mas’ to public centre stage here at the Cape.

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