Masque (2004)

An African Opera


Scene from Masque

Five African masks – Nomfama, Buthongwana, Ntsizi, Nokufa, Phakade – are on display in a European museum. Their curator greatly treasures them, yet conceives of them solely as exotic artefacts, too precious ever to be touched. However, when a shamanist Griot does touch them, they awake to confront their keeper with the inconvenient insight that they are not exotic at all, but rather familiar representatives of universal archetypes – blindness, sleep, sorrow, death and eternal change.

Reflecting on contradictory positions of African and Western perceptions of art, the work is specifically scored for a cast of African and European characters and, in addition to a conventional orchestra, for two specialist ensembles of indigenous African and European Baroque instruments respectively. In hindsight it appears that its collaborative creation was perhaps only possible during the historical moment of South Africa’s short-lived Mandela euphoria, when the nation’s extreme cultural diversity was perceived as an enriching resource, rather than a threatening handicap.