February 4, 2023

African masks and sculptures displayed in original context in ‘Africa in Context’ exhibition at Mesa College

By The San Diego Union Tribune

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Denise Rogers is a professor of art history at San Diego Mesa College, manages the college’s World Art permanent collection, and is the curator of “Africa in Context,” currently on display through Feb. 23 at the college in celebration of Black History Month.


By Lisa Deaderick | February 4, 2023


As a young girl growing up in southeastern San Diego’s Shelltown neighborhood, Denise Rogers spent time flipping through the pages of Time and Life magazines her mother kept on their coffee table. At the time, she just enjoyed the pictures from galleries in New York, Paris, and Italy. Later, after an introductory art course prompted her to change her major from fashion design to art history, she found a career path that allowed her to pair her love of both history and art.

“Despite being an introvert, my work has taught me that I love teaching and studying art and history, and I enjoy sharing my knowledge about art,” said Rogers, a professor of art history at San Diego Mesa College, where she also manages the college’s World Art collection. “I’ve made many connections over the years with arts organizations in the city. … I couldn’t have made a better career choice.”

That choice has also placed her in the position of curating this month’s “Africa in Context” exhibition at the Mesa College art gallery, through Feb. 23. A reception is being held from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the gallery, to celebrate this presentation of African cultural art while also recognizing Black History Month.

Rogers, 57, lives in Paradise Hills with her partner, David Hunter, and she has two children, three dogs, and two cats. In addition to her work at Mesa College, she is also a lecturer at the University of San Diego, and serves on the boards and committees of numerous arts organizations and museums in the county, including the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the San Diego Black Arts + Culture District. She took some time to talk about the “Africa in Context” exhibit and the significance of the cultures and themes presented in it.

Q: Can you start by talking a bit about what is meant by the title of this exhibit, “Africa in Context”?

A: “Africa in Context” was chosen to emphasize the importance of displaying pieces from the Mesa College World Art collection in a manner that will help viewers understand the original context/purpose. When a mask or shrine sculpture is displayed on a pedestal, it doesn’t truly capture the original purpose of the mask. Displaying a mask with the full costume attached gives the viewer a better understanding and appreciation of the performer under the costume, the colors, layers of fabric and, in some cases, symbolism incorporated into the fabric. For shrine pieces or diviner pieces, by placing them on an altar in the space resembling a diviner’s structure, the viewer can better imagine placing an offering on a shrine, or sitting with a diviner for a consultation.

Q: Can you talk about the significance of some of the pieces you selected?

A: Each of the pieces is significant, but a couple that stand out are the Ere Ibeji pieces from the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria. Ere Ibeji serve as vessels for the spirits of deceased twins prescribed by a ritual specialist. There is a high level of twin births amongst the Yoruba people, a phenomena they trace back to their ancestors. The creation of Ere Ibeji occurs with the unfortunate death of a twin. The figures are meant to activate the spirit of the deceased twin, thus turning the figure into a human. The twins are then clothed, fed, and adorned to placate the spirit of the deceased. Without proper nurturing and care, the deceased will feel neglected and this may lead to the death of the living twin, bringing anxiety and misfortune to the family. The twins have idealized forms of beauty: conical heads, columnar torsos, long arms, convex chests, geometric patterning of the elaborate hairstyles, protruding eyes and full, smiling mouths. The cowrie shells represent fertility and prosperity. These figures were rubbed with cam wood and ritually washed to maintain their spiritual power.

What I love about San Diego...

I grew up in the South Bay, in the Shelltown neighborhood adjacent to National City. San Diego has always been my home and there is a comfort level here that I appreciate. I live among working-class people of all ages and ethnicities, and I appreciate the diversity in my neighborhood. What is especially ideal is the quick drive to local beaches, mountains, parks, and all that San Diego has to offer artistically. San Diego is a great place to live.

Q: What was your process for conceptualizing the layout for displaying the works in this exhibition?

A: Originally, I wanted to create environments to simulate people traveling throughout the continent, like a walking tour; however, there were limitations in terms of materials and space, and also time constraints. Ultimately, I settled on placing the figures where the viewer could best conceptualize movement, entering a larger structure, or walking along a road. The fertility wall is meant to simulate a rock outcropping. Many groups construct shrines within rock outcroppings or mounds within their communities. The fertility figures are then placed on/within the shrine, along with other items, such as beads, cowrie shells, palm or kola nuts, candles, and liquid offerings.

For the larger Gelede and Maiden Spirit Masks, I chose to place them on dress forms to simulate a performance through the layering of fabric. The forms are static; however, by placing them in the center of the gallery, viewers can move around the figures, which will get them closer to that real-life experience. There are videos of the actual performances playing in the gallery, so visitors will be able to see the performance and make those connections to the masks. The central figure displays a Gitenga mask from the Minganji, the Eastern Pende peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The costume and mask are both authentic pieces, with the exception of the raffia skirt, arm, and leg attachments. The placement of the Gitenga mask in the center of the gallery allows viewers to see the vibrant turaco feathers radiating from the mask. Viewing the blue, black, and purple colors from the rear is an amazing visual. There is a video showing the dynamic movements of the performers, which enhances the visitor’s experience. The Kuba and Kongo facades were placed to best simulate community structures where visitors could imagine walking into these spaces.

Q: In this decolonized approach to sharing and presenting these works from African cultures, what were some of the questions you and your team wrestled with? And what were some of the results of those conversations that can be seen in “Africa in Context”?

A: Ensuring that the items were mounted securely and all staff and students followed appropriate protocol when handling the artwork was always forefront. However, there were two questions that I frequently returned to while installing the exhibition: I tried to avoid reconstructing environments that resembled ethnographic displays, and I also limited the number of descriptive placards on the wall. Ethnographic displays tend to present groups as objects of study rather than active cultural groups. The inclusion of the videos to activate the space support this goal and provided enhanced visual context. Limiting the descriptive placards helps to keep the focus on the distinct features of each of the environments. Visitors will have access to printed handouts and a website containing information outlining the cultural meaning, design, materials, and symbolism, so they leave the exhibition better informed about the cultural practices that accompany each piece.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: My first San Diego & Imperial Counties Community Colleges Association mentor, Susan Delaney, told me to always be authentic in my role as an instructor. Her advice was to be myself with students and to share personal stories to connect with them because students will see right through inauthentic behavior.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: If I tell you, it wouldn’t be a surprise. Maybe that I am a private person, which is why I avoid events with large crowds, unless I feel it’s beneficial for me to attend. I typically like to go to galleries and museums when they first open or when they are almost empty, and in my favorite sweatpants. Opening receptions, parties, etc., are a bit overwhelming.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Spending time with my partner and my kids. I also like small get-togethers with my colleagues at Mesa, playing with my pets, and working in the yard (I love pulling weeds). My partner and I like our long lunches or dinners where we reflect on our week. There are many fine dining establishments in San Diego that we enjoy. My kids, especially, love amusement parks and watching them ride roller coasters is a thrill. My son loves that the city voted to raise the height restriction near Sea World — he’s waiting for the next roller coaster.

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Tags: Black History Month, Art History, African Art, Art