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‘Grotesques’ explores the art of cultural myths

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
‘Grotesques’ explores the art of cultural myths
Guere Mask from the “Grotesques” exhibit at the Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art. (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Hamill Gallery)

Through February 11, the Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art in Roxbury is exhibiting “Grotesques,” an installation of masks and figural representations. Used over centuries in the ceremonies of African tribes, each piece carries a specific story. The figures reside on white block pedestals, some of which lie against the walls while others are scattered through the central gallery space. This encourages visitors to walk among them, fully examining each piece in the round and interacting with it, much as they may have at the time of its creation. These works weren’t just decorative pieces in their heyday, but integral, active components of daily life.

Author: Photo: Courtesy Hamill GalleryBackground: “Homage to Bergman,” mixed media on canvas, Tim Hamill. Foreground: “Horse and camel skulls,” Bobbi Hamill.

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For more about “Grotesques,” visit:

Gallery hours: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, noon – 6 p.m., and by appointment

“Fetish Panel 1,” native to the Ijo people, depicts three figures seated on a carved throne. The central figure is the leader, wearing an elaborate headdress with his hands reaching out in two fists, a power pose. His companions flank him with slightly less aggressive postures and facial expressions. A “fetish” statute was the equivalent of a Christian icon, a spiritual talisman. Many of the Ijo tribes believed that these objects acquired their power as they were made, through ritualistic carving and consecration materials like horns, shells, feathers, cloth and metal.

You can see a piece of cloth still tied around the central figure’s head, with another draped over the laps of all three. The leader’s headdress features carved feathers that were perhaps once embellished with the real thing. This idea of infusing a physical object with spiritual meaning through artistry is a timeless reflection on art making as a whole. The creation of the work is equally as important, to its maker and its viewers, as they end result.

The “Barong Mask” from Bali, Indonesia aptly lives up to the exhibition name. It features a bright red face with horns, red eyes, a flared nose and giant bucked teeth flanked by tusks. This particular version has black feathers and hair tumbling down from the mask. Many pieces in the exhibition have this kind of hair or beard. What’s intriguing is that this demon-like creature is a good guy. In Indonesian lore, he’s the king of the spirits, and the enemy of the demon queen Rangda. The battle between Barong and Rangda, often depicted in dance, represents the eternal struggle between good and evil.

This impulse to reenact good triumphing evil speaks to a human need for comfort and control. Another, slightly less grotesque, Barong mask is displayed for comparison. Though this one maintains the same physical attributes, the mask appears to be wearing a kind of crown painted with rich gold, red and blue hues. The painting utilizes different patterns and textures as well.

“Grotesques” is a fascinating dive into the stories of ancient African cultures. Both the symbolism and delicate crafting of each piece reveal a human need to confront our fears and champion our heroes, however many horns they may have.