Back to life: Artist’s bid to preserve rich cultures


A photo-shoot he had at Arusha Cultural Heritage Centre in Tanzania sparked a thought on Teddy Mitchener’s mind. The conceptual artist and fine art photographer was fascinated by the cultural African masks stored at the site.

Teddy, a native of Washington DC, grew up seeing tribal masks and drums in home environments and they became a constant interaction he had with the continent and its roots.

What he saw at the heritage site in Arusha took him aback. The decorated masks, which are close to the shape of human faces, carry the weight of rich African history of different tribes. These masks are also a strong identity of antique African art. Thoughts of recreating photographic pieces of art around them played in his mind. It was on his way back home that ideas formed on the project he was going to work on.

(Photo: Teddy Mitchener.)

The artist started working on sketches to share this narrowly known cultural history. He did so to recreate some of the masks for his latest exhibition, ‘Disappearing Africa’, which opened this past week at Alliance Francaise in Nairobi. The art exhibition, running until tomorrow, aims to preserve cultural identity.


Teddy brings the masks to life by plastering materials and colours on faces of real life models to form textured patterns. He breaks this process down into various stages, taking pictures in each stage and then clears the models’ faces to plaster different materials for the next. This goes on for about four or five stages until every part of the mask is represented on the face. He then digitally merges the pictures of every stage to form a mask.

Some of the masks he recreated are Queen Idia from a tribe in Nigeria, N’toma mask from Mali, which was worn to attract a successful hunt or harvest, Tikar mask from Cameroon, Kifwebe mask, which was worn when a chief died and when young men were initiated, and Chikunga mask from Angola was used during investiture and sacrificial ceremonies to the ancestors.

“I select a particular African mask and paint distinctive features on a model’s face and create textures on half of the face to denote degradation, hence ‘Disappearing Africa’,” he says.

“Although there are very many masks, I chose those that resonated deeply with me. I only recreated masks that I found myself drawn to. The masks either belonged to a disappearing tribe or disappearing art form, then it is depicted on a model’s face.”

Reports today show that indigenous tribal masks are gotten from African cultures by traders and sold to people from all over the world who view them as financial investments. It could also be seen as a problem when this very cultural essence is slowly losing its origin and true meaning. Masks that were worn during cultural ceremonies and whose idea and conversations about that have been lost along the way. Teddy believes modernity is also scraping off originality and in decades to come, the continent may not be aware of its rich histories.

“We are witnessing the slow erosion of our own true African selves and what held for millennia is slowly passing away in the face of modernisation, and with the least amount of resistance. There are bits about the history of the continent that has been eroded due to colonialism and with the modern times. These parts of the history have not been stored well and they are disappearing, so to speak. Some of them have been displaced somewhere else and owned by other people. It is not Africa that is owning its story,” he says.

“I am hoping that this will initiate a conversation that there is a need to resurrect and preserve our heritage. If everybody’s history is out there, ours can be found too and there is a lot of history that Africa used to have.”

Teddy’s first brush with art was with sculpting then he became a visual artist and later an art photographer at House of Fotography.

He mostly uses photography as one of his mediums to express creativity. His conceptual art pieces such as ‘Alice in Africa’ aims to celebrate cultural identity, drawing from the popular fairy tale.