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Sokari Douglas Camp: Play and Display

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1995
Published by: Museum of Mankind
Year published: 1995
Number of pages: 24

In 1995, the Museum of Mankind was the venue for Play and Display: Steel Masquerades from Top to Toe, an exhibition of Sculpture by Sokari Douglas Camp. The Museum of Mankind existed between 1970 and 1997, and was a branch of the British Museum, located in Mayfair. Decidedly ethnographic and anthropological in its remit, it mounted exhibitions and delivered a programme accordingly. Its senior personnel were anthropologists and archaeologists, and the museum’s emphasis was very much on objects from Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia.

The exhibition consisted of Douglas Camp’s characteristic sculptures of figures, made of welded steel, and evocative of her own cultural history and her identity as a Londoner. Play and Display: Steel Masquerades from Top to Toe came with an important extensively illustrated colour catalogue. 

Though africa 95 is not mentioned in the catalogue, Play and Display: Steel Masquerades from Top to Toe took place during the run of the festival, which included exhibitions taking place at important venues in London and beyond.

The catalogue contained two texts. The first by Robin Horton, (Sokari Douglas Camp: Ekine Woman in London?”) of the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, dated July 1995, and the second text, (The Sculpture of Sokari Douglas Camp) by Sue Hubbard, similarly dated. From Horton’s text: “Sokari Douglas Camp was born and spent her earliest years in Buguma, the principal settlement of the Kalabari people of the Eastern Niger Delta. Here she lived in a household typical of the time - a household whose mother and younger members made regular expeditions to the mangrove swamp to cut firewood, gather shell-fish and set fish traps. Though cut off from this home environment by the Nigerian Civil War, she was back again in it for school holidays throughout her teens, and especially at Christmas time joined other enthralled  young spectators at ritual festivals, masquerades, and performances by dance groups.”

Elsewhere in his text, Horton asserted, “Social anthropologists and art-historians, between them, have long since made the point that traditional African African sculpture can only be fully appreciated in its total context of use. In the case of sculpted masquerade headpieces, this means taking into account the total context of masquerade construction and performance. Yet Western connoisseurs of African art have continued to hang disembodied “masks” on their drawing-room walls.”

Hubbard’s text began with, “The effect of African art on 20th Century European art cannot be underestimated. It is one of the great acts of colonial appropriation. artists such as the Fauves - Vlaminck, Derain and Matisse - were all seduced by the discovery of the Paris Trocadero, where the Museum of Ethnography and Anthropology Gallery displayed masks and artifacts from the virtually unknown African continent. Artists as divergent as Brancusi, Kirchner in Germany, and the photographer Alfred Steiglitz in New York became fascinated by these dramatic objects, seeing in them a potency, a mystery, an emotional directness lacking in Western academic art. The distorted bodies, the faces flattened into simple planes, revealed a naturalistic expressionism and a direct response to the subject, by the carver, via the material. Perhaps the most celebrated appropriator of all was Picasso. In his chthonic painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon he borrowed African masks, placing them virtually unaltered on the body of his female nudes. This plundering eclecticism and his subsequent development of the simplified planes were to point the way to Cubism. The result has been, therefore, a tendency by western artists and academics to overvalue the mask in relation to other African artifacts. There has been little attempt to understand its full significance within African culture, to read it as part of the whole, along with the costume, as one of the elements that makes up the Masquerade. For in Nigeria, the home of Sokari Douglas Camp, masks generally come with a costume, a festival and set of spiritual and religious values.”

Related people

»  Sokari Douglas Camp CBE

Born, 1958 in Buguma, Nigeria

»  Robin W. G. Horton

Born, 1932

»  Sue Hubbard

Born, 1948

Related exhibitions

Related venues

»  Museum of Mankind

London, United Kingdom