Unmasked: Spirit in the City

Two line drawings of a bell-shaped gong above the words 'Unmasked: Spirit in the City'

An exhibition by David Pratten and Zina Saro-Wiwa

28 Jan 2023 – 7 Jan 2024



Masquerade is a public spectacle based on disguise. It conceals and resists knowledge. In many ways it is unknowable. But in the ethnographic museum masks are presented as if they reveal the mysteries of a culture and its cosmology. Museums pin them down in glass vitrines and furnish them with explanatory labels. As a result African masks are often presented as static symbols of the identity and material culture of rural communities from a bygone era. But masking has always been current, reflecting the times in which it is performed, and the landscapes - including cities - that masked spirits encounter.

This is what Unmasked: spirit in the city investigates. A collaboration between Port Harcourt-born British-Nigerian artist Zina Saro-Wiwa and Oxford anthropologist David Pratten, who tell a very different story about the meaning of the cultural practice known as masquerade. This show combines anthropology and contemporary art to capture the complex emotional stories behind a modern urban masquerade called Agaba.


The Agaba is one of the enduring masquerades of the oil-producing Niger Delta region of Nigeria. It is outdoor theatre: loud, rambunctious and urgent. On the surface, Agaba masking enables the men that comprise the group to perform a tough, masculine identity that is physically, politically and spiritually ‘rugged’. But Unmasked shows that behind the mask, in the songs they sing and in the bedrooms where they dream, these men reflect on their fate in intimate and ironic ways. This story of masquerade finds tenderness and everyday tragedy in the personal and the political. This is told through the songs, the carving and performance, and captured in Zina Saro-Wiwa’s installation Bad Boys & Broken Hearts.

The storytelling employed in this exhibition weaves art and anthropology, creating an expansive visual language that exposes the vitality and vulnerability of life in modern day Port Harcourt. Life, which has been impacted deeply – and often traumatically – by the international oil and gas industry. Unmasked takes us through the glass vitrine to expose the beating heart of the humanity that created the mask. Plus, it shows the secrets of masquerade are not essential and esoteric but elusive and everyday.

Wooden mask with a face featuring an open mouth with sharp teeth and horns on the top of the head.

Mgbedike mask on display in the main galleries of the Pitt Rivers Museum. PRM 1938.15.8

Wooden mask with a face featuring fangs and spiralled horns curved towards each other on the top of the head, on top of which is a leopard-like animal.

Mgbedike mask on display in the main galleries of the Pitt Rivers Museum. PRM 1938.15.16






A small wooden flute

Oja - a wooden flute with notched mouthpiece. PRM 1942.13.1029





A metal bell-shaped instrument used as a gong.

Iron gong from the Niger Delta PRM 1916.45.72





Exhibition curated by Zina Saro-Wiwa and David Pratten
Exhibitions and Special Projects Officer Zena McGreevy
Exhibition design, build, and installation by Alan Cooke and Josh Rose
Conservation by Andrew Hughes, Jennifer Mitchell and Jeremy Uden
Photography by Henrietta Clare
Marketing print by Creative Jay



Oxford Martin School - Governing African Transitions
Public Engagement with Research Seed Fund
Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum





On display on the ground floor, masks display.

On display on the ground floor, masks display.

On display on the ground floor, centre cases.


On display on the ground floor, centre cases.