Dreams are the inspiration for much of the art in the National Museum of African Art’s latest exhibition. It certainly looks like a shadow realm. Illuminated by a twilit scheme meant to evoke late-afternoon sunshine filtered through a dense canopy of leaves, “Visions From the Forests” features mask after mask, many of which seem to have sprung from a restless mind. The whole show has the feel of a power nap: more stimulating than sleepy.
The hallucinatory implication of the title is not just a metaphor. In the tradition of the Dan people of West Africa’s upper Guinean rain forest, where this art comes from, the sandman is quite literally the maskmaker’s muse. For the Dan artist, as the wall text explains, a mask “is typically created after a dream in which someone encounters a forest or household spirit.” The mask, then, is imagination made flesh.
Of the 75 objects on display — which include silver jewelry, stone carvings, colorful fabrics and horns made of ivory — 33 are wooden masks carved by the Dan, the Vai, the Mende and other peoples of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Guinea. The most striking of these are several helmet-style masks that cover the entire head.
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