Saya Woolfalk at Fowler Museum’s Disguise: Masks & Global African Art

At the opening reception of Disguise: Masks & Global African Art on Saturday, October 17th, 2015, the Fowler Museum at UCLA was buzzing. Mina, my six-year-old daughter, joined my mom and me as we maneuvered through the crowds. Mina was a step ahead of us, quickly looking right, then left. She zigzagged through the deer decoys of Neo Primitivism 2, paused in front of the neon masks From Hiz Hands blinking Morse code, and thought twice before tapping the white Brendan Fernandez balloons popping with black outlines of African masks. It was as if Mina knew the section she wanted to see and we were moving swiftly to get there.

We stopped at a darkened entrance. Inside was Saya Woolfalk’s installation ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space. An audience had gathered to watch Laara Garcia dance her commissioned piece for Woolfalk’s exhibit. Everyone was still and silent. Being the only child in the room, everyone gave way to Mina, allowing her to sit in the front. My mom and I stood a few people back and watched Garcia and her two meditating companions. Mina didn’t move as Garcia bowed in front of the Emphatics, three of the central figures in the exhibit. In the utmost center of the trio stood an ornate white figure in a Sowei mask. Garcia placed a bowl in front of this Emphatic, knelt down, then danced in ways that blended feelings of prayer, infinite serenity, and pools of wisdom.

The ethereal music and ever changing avatars projected on the walls added an unexpended dimension of fluidity to Garcia’s movements. The environment was transformed into a space for reflection and meditation. Garcia and her two companions concluded the performance by walking off the small stage, out of the room, and ceremoniously leaving the exhibit. Mina stood up, turned to find me, and stared in amazed silence.

The room cleared out quickly and soon it felt like it was just the three of us, walking around the darkened space, looking at each part of the exhibit. Mina stopped in front of Woolfalk’s video installation, Life Products by ChimaTEK. She’d never been drawn to a video installation before. But with unexpected familiarity, she walked right up to the screen, noticed the black headphones against the black wall, intuitively grabbed them, and put them on. She stood, listening to the mesmerizing sounds, for about ten minutes — an eternity for a six year old. I stood there, for a bit longer, trying to take it in.

When Mina was done, she came towards us and grabbed our hands. “Mommy, Grandma,” she said, “I love the Fowler.” What Mina’s six-year-old language cannot quite express is that her love for the Fowler means she is experiencing a total immersion of emotional connection with art. The Fowler Museum’s presentation of Disguise, on loan from the Seattle Art Museum, is a wonderful addition to the cultural landscape of Los Angeles. That experience of connection is no small feat of Woolfalk’s. Her work created an otherworldly place that touched three generations of women, in one family, all at once.