- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004

Children enjoy immersing themselves in the mystery and magic of play — wearing masks and portraying roles from policeman or ship’s captain to playful cat or spirit. “Playful Performers,” a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, focuses on children’s masquerades in Africa and how they are interpreted as they are passed from one generation to the next.

On display until Dec. 12, “Playful Performers” is the first exhibit the museum has targeted toward children, and the colorful, fun show is drawing families intrigued by the power and significance of the masquerade.

David Binkley, chief curator at the museum, organized the exhibit. Mr. Binkley conducted field research on the children’s masquerade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1980s, when it was known as Zaire. He says he was there originally to research initiation and funeral masking and was intrigued when a local boy presented him with a drawing of a mask created from a broken gourd.

“I just saw this incredible interest by children in the adult masquerade and their desire to imitate the adults, not just making the masks, but wearing them, and learning the gestures, the singing and the dancing that can accompany it,” Mr. Binkley says.

He explains that adult masquerades in Africa allow only limited participation by children, yet the powerful allure of the masked performer encourages youngsters to invent their own shows. These performances can be complete with masks and costumes fashioned from all types of materials, from painted cardboard to plastic, and may include dancing and singing routines.

Upon entering the exhibit, children will be captivated by examples of African youngsters’ creativity, such as a photo of a group of Congolese boys imitating Bruce Lee, proudly wearing hats they made out of leaves. Beyond this entrance, families are welcomed into an exhibit of sights and sounds that make the rich, vibrant masquerade come alive.

Children will be drawn to the life-size, colorful photographs of youngsters imitating different characters. Video presentations help explain the role the masquerade plays in the expression of a community’s history and culture. Adults and children can add to the show by drawing their own unique masks.

Mr. Binkley explains that the masquerade requires a number of people with different types of skills, as is illustrated in the various photos of Yoruba boys of Nigeria as musicians and dancers.

“Many talents are needed,” he says. “It’s not just about wearing a mask. It’s a childhood time of experimentation, when children discover what they can — and cannot — do well,” he says.

He compares the ceremony to a musical recital in the United States, when children experiment with their talents and the adults are observing, judging and praising.

“It’s a weeding-out time,” he says, “but it’s play, so they can make mistakes.”

Children also can gain important skills during the masquerade, such as working with others, and can learn serious adult lessons.

“They learn the joyful, playful aspects of being an adult, but it can also be serious,” Mr. Binkley says. “For example, if they see the masks worn during funerals, they learn that the ceremony can be a celebration of one’s life.”

Masquerades also can focus on modern issues such as those relating to health and education, as is shown in the mask featuring a syringe.

The range of displays in “Playful Performers” illustrates how diverse African cultures celebrate the power and meaning of the masquerade. For example, in Nigeria, the Okpella people’s masquerade focuses on the harvest and funerals.

A bright mask worn during the carnival of Guinea-Bissau and photos depicting the work that goes into creating the papier-mache costume capture the lighthearted, frolicking aspect of this masquerade.

Other displays show that some masquerades are more intense and are required as part of adult rituals. For example, Dogon boys in southern Mali must appear at adult rites marking the change of seasons in their own full-body leaf masks and costumes called sagiri.

“Though different villages view the masquerade from unique perspectives, they all find ways to accommodate youthful play,” Mr. Binkley says.

He points out that the masquerade is one of the most expressive art types in Africa and the forms are dynamic and ever-changing, as is shown, for example, in the photos of the acrobatics that the Igbo and Benue boys of Nigeria perform.

“They learn these acrobatics in gym class, which is unusual,” Mr. Binkley says. “They can take the acrobatics to the adult masquerade, and then others observe change and make that change.”

Mr. Binkley hopes children from around the world will see themselves in the exhibit and will rejoice in their own creativity. He says the masquerade is a tradition that is essential for the next generation.

“You can see how the masquerade has survived and has been passed on in dynamic, supportive ways. The exhibit helps explain why it is loved by adults and passed on.”

WHEN YOU GO:

LOCATION: The “Playful Performers” exhibit will run through Dec. 12 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW.

Hours: The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25.

Admission: Free

Parking: Limited metered parking is available on the Mall. The closest Metro stops are Smithsonian on the Orange Line and L’Enfant Plaza on the Blue, Green, Orange and Yellow lines.

Information: Call 202/633-4600, or visit www.nmafa.si.edu/.

Activities: Docents at the museum can tailor tours to meet the needs of specific grades or the ages of the group. Specific tours available through June 18 are listed at www.nmafa.si.edu/pub-access/pages/tourfrm.htm

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