History Professor Thabiti Willis knows how to engage students inside and outside his “Masquerades in Africa” class.
As part of the course, Willis and Margaret Pezalla-Granlund, curator of the library’s art and exhibitions, created the “Masquerades of Africa” exhibit in the library, where students can study the masks in relation to the history class.
“It draws on the course and gives students a context on the Masks as a part of Africa,” Willis said.
The exhibit, which will run through the end of this term, displays the wide variety of masks that are used in traditional masquerade performances in Nigeria. Students learn the many ways that, through colorful and animated performances, masks help connect Africa’s past to its present.
“Thabiti contacted us last year about the exhibit,” Pezalla-Granlund said. “We found a space in the library that would work, worked with him to shape the exhibit and figure out how to make or fit in the space, and suggested some ways students could work with the content of the exhibit and how they could contribute to it.
“Now, students have this amazing archive of photographs and videos to work with.”
The visual displays and multi-media aspect of the exhibit help students comprehend the multi-faceted cultural implications of the mask performances. Drawing on his research in Nigeria from 2004 to 2006 on a Fulbright fellowship, Professor Willis designed the course to show students how to interpret the political and historical aspects of the masks, as well as their use during the public performances.
“One of the things we look at is the ways Europeans have been depicted in performances,” he said. “Was it local discourse or fascination with the ‘other’?”
At the end of the term, students get to present on their cumulative learning by creating their own masks. Their masks will be on display in the library at the beginning of winter term.
“I call it Version 2.0,” Willis said. “There’ll be more material that goes up” in conjunction with the current exhibit.
“Students can take an exhibit as a starting point and add to it or change it or turn it into something completely new,” Pezalla-Granlund added.
“The thing that excites me most about the exhibit is how it connects to the course, and that they’ll be able to present what they learn to the public. I’d love to be in this class.”