Traditional African Masks Inspire M.F.A.'s Work

woman standing beside a blue sequined sculpture
Na Chainkua Reindorf (M.F.A. '17) with her large sculpture, Screen. William Staffeld / AAP
Two domed sculptures in a gallery
The exhibition Reveal // Conceal, by Na Chainkua Reindorf (M.F.A. '17). William Staffeld / AAP
Na Chainkua Reindorf (M.F.A. '17) with her large sculpture, Screen. William Staffeld / AAP The exhibition Reveal // Conceal, by Na Chainkua Reindorf (M.F.A. '17). William Staffeld / AAP
October 13, 2017

A Profile of Na Chainkua Reindorf (M.F.A. '17) from the Fall 2017 Issue of AAP News.

In her related projects Reveal || Conceal: Policing Women's Bodies and Screen, Na Chainkua Reindorf (M.F.A. '17) set out to explore a question: Why were women's bodies being policed?

Her interest in the subject matter began in 2016 when Reindorf read a fake news article claiming that the Tanzanian president had banned miniskirts. In fact, miniskirts were not allowed in neighboring Uganda — not Tanzania — ostensibly to prevent women from being attacked. But for Reindorf, the law said more about the sexualization of women's bodies rather than their safety.

Reindorf was born and grew up in Ghana. Her family's frequent international travel influenced her undergraduate college search in the U.S., leading her to Grinnell College in rural Iowa. After graduating in 2014, she spent a gap year pursuing her interest in textile design before beginning the two-year master of fine arts program at Cornell University.

During her first year, Reindorf exhibited work in the Cornell M.F.A. group exhibition, Something Came Over Me, as well as several other group shows. Using textiles and representations of the female body, she "explored how a human body can become a vessel for the projection of identities, experiences, and messages — and how fluid the transition can be between these projections."

Reindorf's two solo exhibitions, Reveal || Conceal — funded in part by the Cornell Council for the Arts — and her M.F.A. thesis project Screen (pictured above) were sculptural works responding to the idea of women's bodies being policed, connecting it to ideas of watching and being watched, and how one could "counteract the gaze."

"In heteronormative patriarchal societies around the world," says Reindorf, "women and women's bodies are seen as necessary for men's consumption and policed in the sense that what a woman wears is construed as something to attract or repel men. This is something I vehemently disagree with. I believe in a woman's right to make decisions about who does and does not have access to her body."

Reindorf began by researching the traditional masquerades common in West and Central Africa in pursuit of the idea that facial masks and costumes simultaneously conceal the body and allow the person inside to watch others. She knew that in some communities, masquerade served as a spiritual connection to ancestors, but, especially in Ghana, also as entertainment. Ghanaian "fantasy dress-ups and festivals" date to colonial times when Ghanaians were banned from European pubs and bars and dressed as caricatures of the male European soldiers and military officers during Christmas and the New Year. This social commentary undertone exists in the spiritual versions of masquerade as well.

But in both historical and contemporary African contexts, masks are worn and made almost exclusively by and for men. Reindorf looked for the rare instances of women's masquerades. "I did a lot of research," she says. "It is very, very rare. I was interested in masquerade as a medium for how gallery visitors could experience watching versus being watched."

The most well-known instance of women's masquerade is within Sandé, a women's secret society in Liberia and Sierra Leone that initiates girls into womanhood. While masquerade as a cultural phenomenon is overwhelmingly male, Sandé stands out for its longevity and as a symbol of female empowerment. Borrowing from Sandé's unique iconography, Reindorf used the domed shape of the women's masks in several of her large constructions — which measure six feet long, six feet wide, and seven feet tall — for Reveal || Conceal and Screen.

"For Reveal || Conceal, I made the pieces big enough to be a presence in the gallery and so that they could be occupied by more than one person at a time," Reindorf explains. "On the outside," she says, "there might be 10 people in the gallery but you would just see these monumental pieces in the space, and perhaps discover that there was an opening to pass through, and then that there were other people inside who may or may not have been watching you."

For Reindorf, exploring how that affected people's behavior, how it relates to surveillance, policing, 
and watching someone without them knowing they are being watched — even how returning a gaze may be empowering — changes the dynamic of what power means.

Held in Tjaden Hall's darkened Olive Tjaden Gallery, visitors were drawn to the work's spotlighted tactile exterior. Reindorf found that the interiors of Reveal || Conceal were somewhat misinterpreted as places of solace rather than observation. This is how the second work, Screen, came about — not coincidentally, Reindorf says, during the week of the general election in November 2016.

For Screen, Reindorf used traditional materials like raffia, wood, bamboo, and sequins dyed in deep blue to convey the fantastical and mysterious. She juxtaposed these with contemporary materials (ruffles, beads, frills, and mirrors) to convey how the centuries-old tradition of costume making is being modernized by global trade and Westernization.

"The inside of Screen referenced the contemporary Ghanaian masquerade's bright colors and reflective surface," says Reindorf. "I dedicated the exterior to the more traditional and serious aspects of the references. I wanted the sculpture to be static, yet move in response to people."

For Screen's exterior, Reindorf chose the color blue to symbolize water and to reference the sowei, the masked woman who performs the initiation of girls into womanhood in traditional communities. Blue filters on the gallery's overhead lights had the effect of making the room bluer as daylight dimmed.

"For Screen's interior, I used mirror because it is considered in many parts of the world to be not as reflective of self but a window into another world," Reindorf explains, "and I used reflective Mylar for the window screens, similar to the ideas in Reveal || Conceal, of watching without being seen."

The interior mirrored textile was custom designed to reference the wax-print style of African prints — which, she notes, have their origins in Indonesia and Java, via Dutch traders and colonials. Despite its mixed roots, this style of print is taken to be uniquely African, and it was interesting to Reindorf to put these contrasting references together and ask, "What is authenticity, what is African?"

Although there is no right answer to the question of authenticity, Reindorf believes it is problematic to expect contemporary African art to look a certain way, or that certain materials must be used if something is to be authentically African. She was influenced by Okwui Enwezor's and Chika Okeke-Agulu's writing about globalization and the surge of interest in African artists in their book, Contemporary African Art since 1980. According to Reindorf, the authors contend that ideologies that existed in the 1980s and 90s have since been shattered, and the highly varied cultural traditions and archives available result in complex models of identity and identifications of artists who reside both inside and outside Africa.

Reindorf's varied interests — textile design, sculpture, representing women's bodies, and the projections of identity onto bodies in general — came together during the course of her studies at Cornell largely because of the support she received from the M.F.A. faculty, especially associate professors Jolene Rickard and Bill Gaskins, and Professor Gregory Page. For her, the program stands out because of the faculty's willingness to allow its creative students to respond to assignments in a way that enriches their unique practices. Her studies at Grinnell College had given her an introduction to a liberal arts education. At Cornell, Reindorf expanded that experience with the interdisciplinary resources and interactions the university offers. Classes taken outside of AAP introduced her to avenues of inquiry not directly connected to art but instrumental in her development as an artist.

"At Cornell, I had freedom to think about my work, the practice of art, and being creative," Reindorf says. "I was able to make work but also respond to prompts in class with ideas I had been thinking about."

In addition to her classes, Reindorf was a gallery assistant for Olive Tjaden and Experimental galleries in Tjaden Hall; in the future, she hopes to work in the gallery/museum field in addition to practicing as an artist and pursuing her creative interests, and she is looking into residencies for the opportunity to continue her practice.

When asked what she will do next, Reindorf jokes, "I will have to go small now, because I can't carry large sculptures like Screen everywhere."

"I'm still interested in the surface design aspect of textiles, how they can be used for both two- and three-dimensional capabilities. But I have a lot of interests and passions!" she laughs. "I'm going to take it a little bit slow for the next few months. Then maybe move to New York for a year, and then back to Ghana."

"Maybe," she smiles.

By Patti Witten

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