Walking into the Fowler Museum’s latest installation is like stepping into a time machine to 20th-century Freetown, Sierra Leone.
“Did you bring your passport with you?” said curator Gassia Armenian as she led me toward the exhibition, “Joli! A Fancy Masquerade from Sierra Leone.”
The exhibit, open through July 16 at the Fowler in Focus gallery, displays 11 West African headdresses created during the 1970s. Armenian, who is a UCLA curatorial and research associate, curated the exhibition by choosing to display the headdresses from Fowler’s collection archive.
She partnered with the UCLA Radiology Department in December 2015 to provide a three-dimensional, virtual interior model of the headdresses displayed on a touch-screen pad at the exhibit.
The ornamental headdresses represent the newly freed and decolonized West African state and the social transitions that followed in the country over three decades ago, Armenian said.
Looking around the spacious Fowler in Focus gallery, I was pleasantly overwhelmed by the abundance of feathery boas, vividly painted faces, mirrors, fringes of tassels, Christmas tinsel, patterned fabrics and rich hewn textiles that adorned the towering headdresses. The extravagant designs served as headpieces worn in a festival to commemorate the end of Ramadan, a holy month during which Muslims fast, Armenian said.
My gaze fell on a brilliant explosion of golden textiles intricately nestled around two quiet face masks painted white. A golden cross, the most elevated decoration atop the headdress, sat centrally and was flanked by the symbol of the rampant lion on the right and the rampant unicorn on the left. The headdress represents the seal of the British Crown, which previously colonized West Africa, Armenian said.
Sierra Leone gained its independence from Britain in 1961, leading to an atmosphere of renewal in the free state. People migrated from rural areas to major cities such as the capital, Freetown, in hopes of prosperity, she said.
“It sparked so much in enthusiasm, people had so much faith for the future,” Armenian said, her eyes alight. As she spoke she demonstrated their excitement through her animated demeanor.
However, newcomers to Sierra Leone met hardships when searching for resources and jobs, so philanthropic organizations opened soup kitchens and organized crafting events for the people to enjoy, she said.
Making detailed headdresses encouraged newcomers to have a meaningful and positive contribution to society, rather than turning to temptations of crime fueled by the threat of poverty, she said.
“These are not created by famous artists, these are created by the grassroots people, by the common people, of Freetown, Sierra Leone in the 1970s,” Armenian said.
The residents of Sierra Leone recycled leftover fabrics from British gowns, dresses, curtains and exported textiles to entirely fabricate their festive headdresses, said Armenian as she gestured to a headdress adorned with a floral handkerchief and plaid curtains.
Armenian’s light scarf trailed behind her; she walked through the exhibit and stopped at a headdress with a mermaid motif. She motioned to a mermaid figure decked in plush, red cloth and sultry painted eye makeup that represents the femme fatale, a trope also found in Western society.
Traditional West African symbols were also prominent among the pieces: One headdress was decorated with a mocha-colored elephant lined with blue fringe and maroon feathers. I craned my neck to behold the impressive creature loomed atop the headdress. The elephant is a symbol of Africa, representing stability, memory, perseverance and future endeavors, Armenian said.
We stopped at the last of the 11 headdresses. At the base rested a peaceful-looking face mask, but the top was a three-dimensional rendering of a mosque. The mosque represents the place of worship where the headdresses were created during the 1970s, Armenian said.
When Armenian was first handling the headdress almost nine years ago, she could feel a strong core of unknown substance when holding up the 3-foot mask.
Armenian was curious to discover the structural design that sustained the sumptuous fabrics. By partnering with the UCLA Radiology Department to conduct a computed tomography scan of the headdress in 2015, she was able to discover the internal structure of wires coated in polyurethane foam.
“These are so strong,” Armenian said, nodding her head and raising her eyebrows. “These are not rickety objects.”
Three sizes of wire were used to scaffold the inside of the headdress – thick and flat wire, round mattress spring wire and thin thread-like wire.
I turned, twisted and spun a representation of the scan on a touch screen. I zoomed in and saw the detailed twisting of the thin wire and zoomed out to admire the jumble of interconnected wires. My ability to interact with the display on the screen heightened my appreciation for the meticulous crafting of the objects and brought into the spotlight the inner workings lying beneath the ornate exterior.
Adding 21st-century technology to the exhibit shows the intricacy of the headdresses’ interiors that would have been invisible to viewers, Armenian said.
“We pushed the scholarship of the art by taking interdisciplinary cooperation and dialogue,” Armenian said. “We brought the objects to a new life.”