Zina Saro-Wiwa, proving them wrong when they say masks are too heavy for women’s heads. Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum

The rippling hide of a cow splashed across the wall at Seattle Art Museum looks like just that. But keep looking, and a previously unseen form appears in its surface. The form is a backside—is it part of the living cow still visible? Maybe? Whoa, no.

That's a curvaceous human backside.

A woman's behind and thighs are at eye level. The tail of the cow rises up where her spine would be. No one is just one thing.

Standing before this work of art, and smelling its faint odor, is an unforgettable part of Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, an exhibition featuring more than 20 artists with African heritage living all over the world. Using SAM's collection of traditional African masks as a starting point, Disguise highlights and critiques colonial assumptions about Africa, and also ignores them entirely to forge new New Worlds.

SAM is touring Disguise to the Brooklyn Museum and UCLA's Fowler Museum, high-profile institutions with colonially collected stores of their own.

Nandipha Mntambo made the cowhide. It's a self-portrait. She buys hides from a slaughterhouse and cleans, tans, and molds them into female forms in her Johannesburg studio.

Her work is a good example of the unconventional mediums in Disguise, which seems to contain everything except traditional canvas painting. Disguise opens with a sparkling tunnel playing hypnotic videos of two dancers losing their ever-loving minds. It ends with a shrine of bandannas strung on clotheslines, each one a decorated portrait memorializing one of the 72 people killed in unclear circumstances in a 2010 Kingston, Jamaica, battle between a local drug kingpin and the Jamaican government working with US forces.

The Jamaican artist is Ebony G. Patterson, and she masks the photographs of faces of the dead so they're in half-obscurity. (Government officials did not release names of the dead, or death certificates, for many of the victims after the battle.)

The video of the dancers is by Sondra Perry, a young New Yorker. She whited-out their faces and bodies so that only their whipping dreadlocks are clearly visible, then she accelerated them beyond human speed. They could be ecstatic, or on the verge of collapse.

The opening party for Disguise, last week, was a spectacle. A barefooted man wearing bells on his ankles stepped onto the crowded escalator at one point and rode up into the African permanent collections galleries.

He wore a flowing, cream-colored robe, and started to lean in and ogle the masks on their tall white plinths. Then, he began to dance. He jabbed a finger at the masks, and beat his arms like wings. The robe was designed so he could pull it over his head, and when he did, it looked as though he were offering his body to the bodiless masks. The masks stayed masks. After a sweaty time, he pushed his own head back out, and walked off.

Watching felt like witnessing a ritualized misunderstanding.

The artist who created this piece, In Touch, is named Brendan Fernandes. SAM commissioned Fernandes, and seven other artists, to make new works for Disguise. For In Touch, Fernandes hired Etienne Cakpo, a native of Benin living in Seattle who teaches traditional West African dance, and to design the robe, British-born, Seattle-based Anna Telcs. A previously recorded video of the performance plays continuously in the galleries, displayed with the ritual garment.

For his other, related videos supported by SAM, Fernandes commissioned Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers to interact with SAM's masks in the courtly style of their traditional dance. Both these videos are quiet and contemplative, even a little sad.

The rest of Fernandes's works are flashy, funny, and secretly smart: blown-up balloons printed with faux-African mask patterns trapped in a glass vitrine (Authentic Pop!), blinking neon faux masks (From Hiz Hands), and Voo Doo You Doo Speak, four videos of animated masks mounted on totemic poles and "speaking" (over headphones) in nonsense poetry. A printed poem on the wall asks, "WHO IS THE MASTER OF BULI?"

"Buli Master" is the name given to one of the unnamed artists in Nelson Rockefeller's celebrated bequest of African objects to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 20th century. Art history was satisfied to call him "Buli Master" rather than seeking his name, is Fernandes's point—which would be convenient if anyone proposed repatriation to his descendants.

Fernandes also set loose a herd of life-size decoy deer. Each wears a white plastic mask, and the walls are lined with vinyl Maasai spear stickers. Fernandes is of Kenyan and Indian heritage. He grew up on the edge of a Kenyan safari park where his father worked, before the family in the 1990s moved to Canada. He calls this installation Neo Primitivism 2.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji and Zina Saro-Wiwa don't even bother engaging with the false binarism between Africa and the so-called West. For their commissions from SAM, both artists, working in Nigeria, create masquerades for women in places where females are barred. For Ogunji, that involves donning costumes and videotaping the results of people she passes in the busy streets of Lagos. For Saro-Wiwa, the project involves documentation of men and women. Her photographs of a male ritual group are mounted so they're facing her videos of invented female ritual. Saro-Wiwa's works are shot through with intimacy and sorrow; her father was an author and activist executed by the Nigerian government, and in photographing the male performers, she discovered that one of their masks represents her father.

Another artist with a local lens is Gerald Machona. A pair of photographs documents a performance he did in 2010. Wearing a business suit and mask he made out of money rendered worthless by the Zimbabwean regime, the Zimbabwean artist did an improvised version of a ritual dance on the edge of a roof overlooking Harare. He flung the bills from the mask into the wind (he called the piece Make It Rain), a crowd formed, and the authorities detained and beat him. In the photographs, he embodies a smooth-criminal trickster.

"I transcend flesh," Jacolby Satterwhite once pronounced. He's a queer native of South Carolina now based in New York and making video phantasmagorias that have taken a little corner of the art world by storm in the last five years.

The videos are digital, and digital-looking, but they're powered by his emotional life and the history of his body, which has needed to transcend to survive. SAM purchased his tour de force Country Ball. It's a combination of him doing analog tasks like fashioning costumes and dancing for the camera, and him doing complex 3-D modeling to create armies of clones of himself, and elaborately weird virtual worlds in which he can do anything, and does. It's a little like Matthew Barney, if Barney had more of a soul and an interesting lived experience (and respect for the value of your time).

Floating through Satterwhite's videos are loose drawings with scribbled text, for instance, "Blowers for in the house and in the yard" or "Magnetic bands for the pain in the body." These are from notebooks Satterwhite's mother kept. She would sit by the TV and sketch ideas for products that would make them rich. They never did; his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

To cast off the burdens of your flesh and try a new mix of identities, an artist named Saya Woolfalk has staged a dark, pulsing, glowing chamber at SAM. The artist, born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a white African American father, invented an alternate society of people she calls The Empathics. Their "patented" system makes "interspecies and intersubjective hybridization available to all" thanks to a corporation called ChimaTEK, which is "launching" its Seattle branch with this "showroom" at SAM.

The chamber is an electro-utopia where a glow-in-the-dark mural (video projection) depicts a huge, chugging machine. It pumps a swirling rainbow potion through its pipes while mannequins on pedestals preside over the room. They wear ornate, beautifully crafted global-politan-spiritualist fashions.

Wall labels and an "instructional video" explain that the company is "still testing the effects of psychic cleansing and remixing." But "we are confident" it will be "right for all your future self's needs."

It's funny, yes, but not a joke. How far can empathy go? What would it take to be able to "download" someone else's lived experiences? Why was a white woman in Spokane, Washington, pretending to be black to the point where she became head of the local NAACP? The artists in Disguise make undistillable and highly relevant work.

Two curators stand behind Disguise. One is Erika Dalya Massaquoi, an African American native of the South and a specialist in electronic and digital art by artists of color. For 20 years, she has dreamed of making a museum show capable of embodying Frantz Fanon's "lived experience of the black," and yet also of being a "sensorium," or a vivacious address to as many senses as possible, to as many people as possible.

Pamela McClusky is the white woman who founded the African art department at SAM 36 years ago, after growing up partly in Liberia, where she saw masquerades that inform Disguise. While Massaquoi planned and dreamed her own vision, McClusky performed years of curatorial calisthenics in Seattle trying to bring across the dignity and life in SAM's African collection—in a context (the museum) that has often thwarted her by its very nature.

Disguise is a wish by both women that new masks can invoke new spirits. recommended