“The Play”: Guinean Arts in Exhibition/Performance

“The Play” is a hybrid project that combines an exhibition of traditional masks and a multimedia stage performance featuring professional US-based artists from Guinea, West Africa. The project unifies artists, art objects, and archival material to self-consciously present Guinean cultural heritage of the early 20th century through the present.

The project’s concept of exhibition/performance offers a two-space forum through which audiences first encounter traditional Guinean masks in a standard gallery exhibition, then take seats in a theater for a multimedia orchestration of field and archival footage alongside Guinean artists who perform dance, music, and the exhibition's masks.

“The Play” is conceived in response to a current global predicament facing the arts of Africa and specifically Guinea. Beginning in the late 19th century, European colonization of Africa transferred a majority of high-quality African objects to Western collections; beginning in the late 20th, economic globalization caused an exodus of state-trained Guinean performing artists to the West. Today, the material and performing arts of Guinea are among the best represented in museums and dance venues in New York, but performers and objects rarely if ever interact. “The Play” envisions a space for performers and artworks to animate and clarify each other’s history.

This format of exhibition/performance is critical because Western institutional conventions and market forces have continually de-historicized and compartmentalized the arts of Africa, separating artistic media that are traditionally inseparable—including dance, music, masks, costumes, and other elements. This type of fragmentation persists despite extensive documentation of Africa’s modernity, and despite continuing interconnectivity among African artists across disciplines. From museum displays to dance classes and shows, Western contexts often threaten to obliterate not only African (art) history, but also the full aesthetics and substance of African arts themselves.

“The Play” takes seriously the notion that contemporary African artists are constantly innovating new creative forms and new understandings of identity, and that these artists should have primary agency in framing their traditions. The project is not necessarily designed for a single institution or site, but is loosely conceived as a traveling production geared toward facilitating shared programming between museums and performing arts organizations. While intended for a theater or concert hall, the project invites additional participation from museum curators, collections, artists, and audiences of all ages in lectures, symposia, and/or other public and educational initiatives.

The project’s title derives from a statement on African dance aesthetics by curator and art historian Frederick Lamp, who writes that: “Dance in Africa cannot be considered apart from other forms of art. In contrast to the compartmentalization of the arts in the West, with our departments of dance, theater, music and the plastic arts, there is simply one art in the traditional African setting, and that art goes by various terms often translated as ”˜the play,’ ”˜medicine’ (as something that effects), or ”˜the sacred.’” Indeed, music and dance performances are often referred to in Guinean Susu and Maninka languages as bere yire and tolon bia--“play places.

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