On any given day, we see horrible images of violence, famine, floods, habitat and environmental loss on the news or social media, and moments later, we switch the channel to South Park and “like” a photo of a poodle wearing a tuxedo on Instagram. With a myriad of responsibilities and distractions, it is hard for some of us to take a moment to see things through the lens of another person.
Empathy is the ability to foster an understanding of each other’s lived experiences by going outside our perceived reality and into the reality of another person. Empathy is being able to consciously feel what others are going through and expressing. As psychologist Douglas LaBier describes:
“Empathy is what you feel only when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of the other person. There, without abandoning or losing your own perspective, you can experience the other’s emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person’s world. That’s not telepathy; it’s a hard-wired capacity in all of us…”
It has been theorized that in today’s climate, we are afflicted by what is known as Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD) (LaBier, 2010). Lack of empathy can affect equity, because if we are unable to grasp the experiences and realities of others then we don’t truly develop a respect for their social, emotional and cognitive perspective. As discussed in the two previous posts about making art more equitable, realizing differences and adapting to include variability in our sociocultural conversations is important in shifting canonical systems of social stratification to a balanced and multifaceted social climate.
One of the ways that we can become more empathetic and equitable is by utilizing creativity to envision environments that are inclusive and receptive to social and cultural diversity. Art can function as a resource that inspires and challenges us to think about local and global perspectives and the importance of experiencing other cultures from a vantage point within their world. The essential question within our current global framework is how can we coexist in such fragmented and perilous times? One way is by learning to make space within ourselves for other people’s self expression. Doing so means going beyond just listening to their words or seeing their imagery. It means being able to identify and comprehend what they feel.
The Seattle Art Museum makes empathy and equity an active learning experience by offering cultural and experiential education alongside the objects in their galleries. The museum has a substantial collection of art from many African nations, and its presentation shifts our gaze from colonialism to community. One way of doing this is by activating the objects in the space so that they reference and illuminate cultural traditions in an authentic manner. Masks are presented over the faces of mannequins rather than on the wall or in display cases, so we get a sense of how these objects would actually function within the cultural context of the region. The museum is also very conscious in getting advice and feedback from contemporary artists and citizens of African nations. These individuals and groups are given precedence over the anthropological and patrimonial discourse that is often too common in regards to the presentation and interpretation of artworks created throughout the continent.
The museum’s display of Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007), incorporates the contextual knowledge and experience of individuals who are the primary participants with the objects on view. The installation features Afikpo Igbo masks created by Chukwu Okoro, a renowned Nigerian carver from Mgbom Villege, Afikpo. Okoro’s masks characterize spirits, and are utilized in Afikpo masquerades called Okumpka plays, which enable performers to purge themselves of embarrassment and embrace their playful and vulnerable nature. The installation on view presents mannequins donning masks and costumes that are part of the oft-humorous Okumpka plays, popular among Igbo Afikpo tribes in Nigeria. In front of them is a pot, which is a vessel for the masked players to announce their injudicious actions and compete for the honor of being the most foolish. Additionally, performers have the agency to challenge authority and through humor and satire, expose problematic elements of society. Those who stand accused of misdeeds are “obliged to listen without retaliating.” The idea is that airing grievances and listening to the feelings of those who have been wronged will encourage those who have done the wrongdoing to understand how their actions affect the feelings of others.
The costume elements were assembled by Sam Irem, a former president of the Afikpo Association of America, while Eze Anamelechi, an Igbo artist and native, was invited to the museum in order to supervise the fabrication. The insight gained through having these individuals partake in the work’s display allows us to view and interpret it in a culturally relevant context.
Regarding the museum’s display of the Afikpo Masquerade Players, contemporary Igbo sound artist Emeka Ogboh, exclaimed: “This is one of the best places I’ve seen masks installed because normally they would hang it on the wall. But doing it this way, with the costumes and everything, also gives it character because these masks were not really meant to be hanging on the wall like that” (Ogboh, 2018). The masquerade players became the foundation and inspiration for him to create artwork for the 2015 group exhibition Disguise. About the work he made for Disguise, Ogboh says “I try to make that connection with what was existing here already, which was trying to work with sounds that could go with this whole situation of masquerading and find a way to give it a contemporary feel for the installation for the exhibition” (ibid).
In Disguise, works by contemporary artists are juxtaposed with traditional objects, themes and practices, illustrating how tradition is both maintained and transformed through generations. This methodology is central to the Seattle Art Museum’s pedagogical approach of presenting their collection and organizing exhibitions in ways that express empathy and equity.
The Afikpo Masquerade Players are currently part of a conceptual exhibition titled Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. The premise of the exhibition is that:
“Three Empathics have moved into the Seattle Art Museum and established a virtual space where you can step outside your normal, routine self and improve your ability to understand others…..Here, the Empathics display their trademarked process for transformation—absorbing vapors that spread digitally on the walls and floor. Surrounding this showroom is art the Empathics selected because they felt it could awaken empathy in the viewer.” – Wall text courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum.
A conceptual commonality in the presentation of these artworks, is the envisioning of a near-future civilization, where we are unified by the web of identities that each of us employ; and our ability to express empathy for each other’s unique experiences.
At the crux of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, is Saya Woolfalk’s ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space (2015), an immersive multi-disciplinary installation that explores a futuristic society where we have transcended our traditional form of humanity for a hybrid type of post-human existence. In this scenario, we have transformed out of our human bodies to form interpersonal connections with other races, ethnicity, genders and biological forms such as plants and animals. The work incorporates physical objects such as Sowei-inspired helmet masks –traditional versions of these masks, made by the Mende Culture in Sierra Leone, are on view nearby with explanations from a Sowei student who describes their importance in regards to female initiation rituals– and digital animation as a means to tell stories that reflect both the physical and metaphysical space. Through the amalgamation of media and narratives, we can enter the environment and feel a sense of transformation within ourselves. The idea is that we should remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle of our consumer based lifestyle and enter a reflective space where we are absorbed by the sights, sounds and feelings of nature and spiritual transcendence.
In addition to the re-presentation of the Seattle Art Museum’s African art collection, a current exhibition by Zanele Muholi titled Somnyama Ngonyama (Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness) questions prior cultural narratives around African identity. Muholi’s politically charged black and white self-portrait photographs express intersectional facets of black identity, through an exploration of how black bodies are stereotyped into ethnographic archetypes. In these self-portraits, Muholi portrays the identity of other black bodies, like the Afro-Japanese, who have been marginalized and tokenized for exploitative purposes. Muholi utilizes props made from found materials like rubber gloves and plastic to critique the message of colonialism’s influence on the way black bodies are misrepresented and compartmentalized in Western narratives. The series is a powerful rebuttal of black beauty ideals and standards, which typically have violent and oppressive origins.
Viewing these portraits, may enable us to feel a connection to the subject as Muholi states, “with this work people would see that it is possible, that the gallery is meant to be for everybody.” Even if we don’t personally identify with the figures in the photographs, we can learn a lot about other people’s social, emotional and cognitive experiences through viewing them. We come to the realization that we are part of a system that oppresses and ignores others for political and economic gain. Western culture has a tradition of fetishisizing and making a commodity out of the human body in a manner that ignores and/or negates intersectional identities.
Muholi’s art behooves us to re-frame our thinking about beauty and body image in a manner that promotes unity and interconnection between seemingly diverse groups of people. Upon the aforementioned works at the Seattle Art Museum, we enter other people’s social, emotional and cognitive space from the vantage point of their world.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Joy, Charlotte, “African art in Western museums: it’s patrimony not heritage,” Aeon, 20 Feb. 2019. https://aeon.co/ideas/african-art-in-western-museums-its-patrimony-not-heritage
LaBier, Douglas. “Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder?” Psychology Today. 12 Apr. 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-resilience/201004/are-you-suffering-empathy-deficit-disorder
Muholi, Zanele and Seattle Art Museum. “Zanele Muholi on “Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness” at Seattle Art Museum,” YouTube, 20 Sept. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=180&v=fppJn5N2-Ks
Ogboh, Emeka and Seattle Art Museum. “My Favorite Things: Artist Emeka Ogboh on Chukwu Okoro masks,” YouTube, 11 Aug. 2015. https://youtu.be/OtGJCTRilVE