Artists Explore Identity Through Portraits & Masks

by Sura Wood

Artists reimagine old forms and create new ones in two exhibitions on view this month.

“Sublimated Masks” at the Museum of Performance + Design features strikingly original hand-crafted costumes and fiber sculptures designed for a production of Jean Genet’s play “The Balcony,” while “Portraits and Other Likenesses from SFMOMA,” a collaborative venture with the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), displayed in MoAD’s recently renovated space, stretches the definition of portraiture.

The portrait exhibition’s 50 paintings, sculptures, photographs, mixed media and installation pieces, dating from the early 1930s to the present, are drawn from SFMOMA’s collection and relate to the African diaspora. But rather than faithfully documenting physical traits or evoking iconic individuals, many of the artists upend stereotypes and imbue their works with fantasy and fiction. “Personal identification is just the starting point,” says MoAD guest curator Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins in SFMOMA’s members’ magazine. “A portrait can be as much about masquerade and invention as it is about physical description.” She might have been referencing Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit” (2009), one of a series of outrageous, wearable sculptures named for the noise they produce when worn. A Chicago-based artist with a background in fashion, Cave scavenged through thrift shops, remnant barrels and his relatives’ attics for materials to construct the ornate costumes that allowed him to be loud in a crowd and express himself without inhibition.

Though the show emphasizes the work of a younger generation of artists, it also pays homage to veterans such as Romare Bearden, whose large, vibrantly colored collage, “Three Men” (1966-67), depicts a trio of musicians delineated with abstract, fractured shapes. “Forever Free” (1933), an allegorical wood sculpture by Sargent Johnson, a prominent, early-20th-century San Francisco sculptor, shows a dignified black woman gazing reverently toward the heavens while protecting her two young children, whose likenesses are carved and painted on her skirt. The subversive Robert Colescott is represented by “Colored TV” (1977), an acrylic painting in which a cartoon-like black figure of indeterminate gender is seated in a bright red lounge chair, watching a buxom white woman cavort on television. At a time when African-Americans rarely saw their identities or lives reflected in the mass media, “Colescott came at social and political issues head on,” notes LeFalle-Collins. “He wasn’t afraid to be controversialor to confront people with their biases, politics or complacency.” He pushed the envelope with respect to a certain style of confrontational presentation, opening the door to other artists such as Kara Walker, whose drawing here overtly critiques violence and displacement connected to the diaspora, and Mickalene Thomas, whose staged photograph “Sista Sista Lady Blue” (2007-08) explores black identity and perceptions of African-American beauty. In Thomas’ picture, a woman with an Afro, knee-high boots and a cool 1970s vibe sits on a living room couch. Staring intently, she seems to dare the viewer to meet her gaze.

Many artists in the exhibition question how far society has come in terms of race, class, gender and visibility, observes LeFalle-Collins. If there’s one thing this show demonstrates, she says, it’s that we need to keep asking that question. “Blacks are in the movies, on TV and hosting programs but underneath the veneer there’s still institutionalized racism in every walk of life and these artists know that.”

"Portraits and Other Likenesses
from SFMOMA"

May 8 → October 11

Museum of the African Diaspora

685 Mission St.


SF/Arts Listing

Latifa Medjdoub’s expressive, large-scale costumes and fiber sculptures, created for Collected Works’ revival of French playwright Jean Genet’s “The Balcony,” performed at San Francisco’s Old Mint last year, delve into concepts of disguise, illusion, role playing and high-stakes power games. A French-born, San Francisco-based sculptor, painter and costume designer, Medjdoub integrated a variety of genres, tools and techniques in the
construction of 45 giant masked dolls, which are on view in “Sublimated Masks,” a new show of her work. The dramatic costumes and sculptures, made of wool felt that was painted and printed with imagery, were originally created for the twisted theatrical universe of Genet’s story about an armed rebellion in the streets of an unnamed city. Most of the play unfolds within the confines of a brothel or “house of illusions” catering to elite clients who act out their fantasies, donning distorted facades of officials in high places—judges, generals and bishops—who wield institutional power in a regime that is falling apart outside the walls of the brothel. Medjdoub drew upon vintage and digital imagery for the costumes and imprinted the masks with the faces of the actors who play the roles.

“The intention was to create
powerful visual effects but also to reinforce the contrasts: reality and fiction, power and impotence, even the worlds within and beyond the brothel that drive the play,” Medjdoub explains. Visitors encounter a cast of menacing, irrational protagonists who wear fetishized objects emblematic of their ambition and illusions of power and domination. Medjdoub says that the costume for the Chief of Police, which is pinned with an excessive number of badges and medallions, illustrates “almost to the point of being slightly ridiculous, the character’s desire to have not just a badge, but a badge from every agency to reinforce how incredibly powerful he had become.” The general’s arrogance is parodied by a vulgar display of medals on his chest suggesting his aspirations and grandiosity. His “ensemble” is completed with an ill-fitting, oversized military hat, jodhpurs and riding boots. The bishop, a simple workman striving to be perceived as a supreme messenger of God, wears a mitre and a vestment decorated with multiple crosses and religious icons, such as one of a virginal Bjork crowned by a halo-like headpiece. On the front of the judge’s garment is a totemic composition featuring enlarged images of the eyes of 13 jurors, looking skyward, seeking the truth. An imperious female envoy is dressed in a billowing, blood-red gown.

“Actors,” a section comprising the artist’s big fiber sculptures, includes “The Passage,” a figure whose mask resembles the face of a little girl; it was inspired, explains Medjdoub, by “the cosmos and the birth of matter.” Inhabited by an actress during performances, the sculpture, which resembles a once-fashionable Parisian gone to seed, tentatively roamed the hallways of the Old Mint, a silent witness on a dreamlike journey, baffled by the violent conflicts playing out around her.

"Latifa Medjdoub: Sublimated Masks"

Through June 20

Museum of Performance + Design

893B Folsom St.


SF/Arts Listing