Marja-Leena Rathje
Home ::: Douglas Curran and Nyau

Douglas Curran and Nyau

Douglas Curran, Ndapita ku Maliro (Nkhuku Mutsekele)
I'm going to the Funeral, Lock up the Chicken
(scanned from invitation)

Another very interesting and very worthwhile exhibition we went to see on Sunday afternoon (yesterday) after the visit to the Burnaby Art Gallery, was at Presentation House Gallery in North Vancouver. It is the largest non-profit photographic gallery in Western Canada, widely recognized for its exhibitions of photography and media art, emphasizing contemporary Canadian work within a context of historical and international art. I'm not usually a huge fan of photography and film exhibitions, but my personal interest in anthropology and "primitive" cultures was piqued so I really wanted to see this one:

DOUGLAS CURRAN The Elephant Has Four Hearts: Nyau Masks and Ritual

"Vancouver based photographer Douglas Curran first met members of the Chewa people while working on a film in Zimbabwe in 1992. The Chewa he met were migrant workers from Malawi employed on plantations and in mines. Over a period of several years he gradually became integrated into this community in Malawi, photographing and filming their extraordinary rituals associated with a belief system known as Nyau. The Chewa rituals and their masks are part of a complex and spectacular set of beliefs that Curran has been encouraged by the Chewa to document. Curran, no longer an outsider to this culture, has created a stunning pictorial record that invites dialogue about recording the lives of others, and forces comparisons with contemporary performance art." (from Gallery statement, curated by Bill Jeffries)

This stunning exhibition consists of 60 large colour photographs, about 10 masks and a video of village perfomances using the masks. To me, it felt like walking into the pages of National Geographic magazine or its films. They would be at home at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC as a vivid documentary of a threatened culture.

I suggest a browse through Douglas Curran's excellent website to see some of the photos, read the catalogue and a review about the Nyau, plus his many other projects. Also read 'Nyau Photos Challenge Cultural Appropriation', a review by art critic Robin Laurence in the Straight.

The exhibition continues to February 27th, at Presentation House Gallery, 333 Chesterfield Avenue, North Vancouver, BC

Marja-Leena | 21/02/2005 | 3 comments
themes: Anthropology, Art Exhibitions, Other artists, Photography


This looks like a fantastic exhibition. One of my favorite destinations is the exhibit hall for the arts of Oceania and Africa at the Met, in New York; this so-called "primitive" art (which is nothing but) never fails to excite and inspire me, and shake me out of my Euro-centric way of seeing and feeling my world.

Wonderful photography, but I find the masks terrifying. As pieces of design they are incredibly sophisticated.

I'm provoked to ask you if you know Leni Riefenstahl's People of Kau/Last of the Nuba? Another great photographic study of tribal behaviour

Beth, I also greatly love going to these sections of museums.

Anna, I don't recall the names - would love to see those too! The masks in the gallery did not seem so terrifying, especially seeing all the strips of recycled cloth from every kind of old clothing, some mud encrusted and torn. Some of it seemed humorous, with an undertone of threat, like in Grimm's Fairy Tales in a way - offering lessons in living sometimes.