White African Masks: Representing Africa in a Johannesburg Hotel

by April Strickland, New York University and Andy Rotman, Smith College
On a trip to South Africa in 2003, we spent a brief layover in Johannesburg in the lounge of the Airport Sun Inter-Continental Hotel, located just outside of the international terminal. Over coffee and snacks, we joined staff and patrons in watching a South Africa-Scotland rugby match on the lounge’s large television. During halftime we wandered into the main seating area where we came across a wall covered with African masks. The masks were of traditional designs from Kenya, Gabon, and the Congo, but instead of being made of traditional materials, they were made of plaster and painted white.
photo 1: courtesy of Wilson and Associates
photo 2: April Stickland, 2003
To learn more about this wall of masks, we spoke with S, the maître d’ of the restaurant. S explained that the designs of the masks were from “traditional cultures” across Africa, so the wall of masks was “like a map of Africa.” Yet these were not “real” masks. They were “fakes” made in a local factory, rendering the map somewhat artificial. Real masks would have been better, S told us, but traditional objects were simply more expensive. They were also more dangerous. Pointing to the curtain of fake porcupine quills hanging from the ceiling, S explained that real porcupine quills were costly and dangerously sharp. Plastic replicas of porcupine quills, he said, offered the same appearance, but they were cheaper and safer. According to S, Africa’s traditional objects and forms were frightening, if not dangerous, to Afrikaners. Real masks would unsettle them, as would traditional African dress. S said that if instead of his headwaiter’s suit and tie he wore his native attire from Malawi, replete with the requisite “big knife,” diners at the restaurant would flee. By contrast, when we asked S what constituted traditional Afrikaner culture, he gestured to the restaurant’s patrons and said, “Drinking in bars. And they have some songs.”
photo 3: courtesy of Wilson and Associates
Our conversation with S was soon interrupted by the end of halftime, and S once again turned his attention to the rugby match. He had bet on Scotland with another restaurant employee, and he followed the match intently. Though everyone else in the lounge, the mostly black staff and the mostly white patrons, was rooting for South Africa to win, S was rooting for Scotland. S explained that he didn’t ally himself with the predominantly white Springboks, the South African team that for decades was an icon of apartheid. Rugby wasn’t his sport. Soccer was his game. Regardless, Scotland prevailed, and A lost his bet.

After the game, we perused the wall of masks again, and we contemplated this literal whitewashing of African culture, or to follow S’s reading, this whitewashing of the map of Africa. The glaring fluorescent lights from below made the masks appear not just white, but iridescently white. The Springboks may have left behind their racist past, but looking at that wall of masks we could easily imagine why S might not identify with the Springboks, or why he might bet against them.
When we returned home to the United States, we emailed the hotel’s architects, Wilson and Associates, about the masks. What follows is the questions that we posed along with their answers.
Question 1. Why were plaster replicas of African masks chosen to decorate the restaurant seating area? Why not use traditional masks made of materials such as wood, raffia, and beads? Are traditional masks prohibitively expensive or difficult to procure? Or was the choice to use plaster replicas an aesthetic decision of the designers?
These are not plaster replicas, they are a range of traditional African masks from across Africa. They have simply been washed in white, this choice is an aesthetic one. These masks are readily available and are not prohibitively expensive. Our brief for this project is a ‘Gateway to Africa’ not just South Africa hence we have used a combination of different masks from across Africa representing AFRICA and its diverse cultures.
Question 2. In the literature available on the Wilson and Associates website, it mentions an effort to transform traditional African motifs for the international traveler. Do plaster, factory-made models in some sense represent a modern reworking of traditional African designs and production methods? Is this meant to be a refashioning of the rural into the urban, the traditional into the modern, or the national into the transnational?
The gallery type volume of this hotel is perfect for the display of African art pieces, the display and grouping of these traditional items is cutting edge in its application and not only in its form. The architecture and double volume simply serves as a canvas for African Art and its cultures…these traditional pieces have been placed in the context of a 5 star businessman’s hotel, contemporary in style, this interior is a true expression not only of African art and tradition but also of its advancement and global attitude towards a brighter future. This hotel is Proudly African.
Question 3. Was the selection of the masks based on their individual designs or the way they work as a collective entity?
A collective entity.
Question 4. In the selection of the masks, was there an intent to convey a pan-African motif based upon the origins of the masks’ designs? Or are the designs indigenous to South Africa?
See point 1.
(Email from July 23rd, 2003)
Reading the response of the architects once again, some four years after the original exchange, we are just as struck by their apparent obliviousness to the politics of aesthetics. Though the masks are clearly reproductions, the architects nevertheless contend that the masks are original, that they have “simply been washed in white,” and that this was just an aesthetic choice. This does not bode well for the “brighter future” of Africa that the masks were intended to beckon. This hotel may well be “Proudly African,” but we wouldn’t be surprised if S, and maybe his coworkers, root against it.