USM had the wonderful opportunity to welcome Oscar Mokeme to give a presentation called “African Masquerade” at the Burnham Lounge in Robie-Andrews Hall on November 14th. The presentation was an opportunity to share African culture through art with students. Mokeme immigrated from Nigeria, and is now the Founder and Director of The Museum of African Culture in Portland. The event was attended by various different classes on campus, whose coursework focused on art history and cultural encounters.
Mokeme had started the presentation by inviting his audience to interact with him throughout the presentation, which kept everyone engaged, and provided a welcoming atmosphere that allowed people to learn more about African culture. He then explained how in Africa, the different objects he was going to show weren’t just art, they were used as tools to express themselves and connect with their community.
The first object shown was a mask that had many colors and great horns. Mokeme walked around the room, and asked the audience what emotions the mask brought up for them. Most people had responded with fear, which prompted the idea that the mask was for battle. Mokeme explained that the mask was worn when a child was born, as a sort of initiation. He talked about the different cultural beliefs around birth and life, and how life is seen as frightening, because it is all new for a child. He went through the different aspects of the mask, such as the colors and symbols, all while explaining the significance they carried in African culture.
Mokeme then brought out another mask that he explained represented ancestors. This mask had no color besides the muted brown wood it was made out of. There was no clear expression on the mask that hinted towards any emotion. He prompted the audience to think about their own definition of ancestors, and used that to compare cultures in a meaningful way. He talked about the importance of balancing the body, mind, and soul. Inner strength was also emphasized as he stated that the path to success in African culture is seen as having strength and determination. To be able to let go of hurtful and stressful situations is seen as having that inner strength. In African culture, ancestors provide support and are looked to for guidance in order to achieve their strength, which is confirmation that they are on their personal path to success.
Love is very important in African culture. Mokeme describes love as the foundation. Following ancestors, Mokeme brought out a small, thin statue with a larger head that represented childhood. He used this statue to discuss the idea of having an “inner child”. It’s important to stay connected with your inner child in order to be comfortable, Mokeme said. He explains that pride and arrogance comes from your inner child, and brings it back to having that personal strength to let go of that pride to heal and move forward. It’s also important to recognize this pattern in other people as well, and to have sympathy and love for others.
While in American culture, where women had to fight for rights and recognition, there is a lot more respect for women in African culture. Just as the sky is viewed as a man, Earth is a woman, as Mokeme explained, so hurting a woman is like hurting the Earth. Women are also the ones who make the laws in Africa. Mokeme had also touched on the topic of being transgender, or “crossing gender” as he had explained it. He said in African culture, it’s natural, and it’s known to not be a choice. There isn’t the same stigma that American culture has.
The next mask that was brought out had a very intense expression. Mokeme again turned to the audience to gather their opinions on what they thought the mask was representing. There wasn’t a clear answer, so Mokeme put on the mask to demonstrate. He explained that it was a mask that held double personalities, to help express laughter and sadness. This mask was used to address the topic of toxic masculinity, as Mokeme explained how it’s important to allow yourself to cry and express your emotions, especially for men. Bottling up emotions, and not allowing yourself to get those negative feelings out is what leads to violence. Being open and honest with yourself and others requires that inner strength Mokeme discussed previously.
Mokeme kept the audience engaged throughout the entire presentation, especially when he opened up the opportunity to the students to try on the next mask he brought out. The mask was wooden and brown, with an open, smiling mouth. He explained that this mask was a “laughing mask” to encourage one to laugh at themselves. Laughter is the best medicine, Mokeme said. He stressed the importance of being able to laugh at yourself during times of hardship and embarrassment. The student who had the chance to wear the laughing mask demonstrated this perfectly, putting himself in a vulnerable position in front of the audience, and still was able to have fun and laugh at himself with the others.
The final mask Mokeme had brought out was meant to invoke the fear of demons. In African culture, demons are believed to make and influence bad decisions. The mask had a line down the middle of the forehead, which Mokeme explained was to remind one to stay calm and be still in challenging moments in life. The mask also had large horns to represent strength. He reminded us to have love for ourselves and others, despite what could be happening. To be happy is strengthening one’s relationship with the divine, and protects one from the negative low vibrations of demons.
As the presentation came to a close, Mokeme left the room for a few moments as the audience was left wondering about what was to come next. When Mokeme returned, he was dressed head to toe in a ceremony costume as he danced around the room. The presentation was done perfectly, as Mokeme shared his personal experiences and home culture in a way that an American audience was able to relate to. It was a great opportunity to learn about another culture and made the audience think about their own beliefs in a new way.