This past Halloween, when kids got to dress up as their favorite cartoon character or superhero, two of the biggest selling costumes for girls and women were Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. In societies across the globe, people put on wigs, make up, and all manner of costume to transform themselves for participation in communal rituals. Individual expression is a part of the process, but in many cultures, masks and costumes are meant to represent deities or "mythical identities."
So for the children dressing up, are Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj cartoons? Or are they - through their masks and costumes - links to the realm of spirits?
Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter writes that the Surrealists collected tribal art "...without regard for function, culture, or history. They let the objects collide. They hoped accident would reveal analogies that convention concealed." In The Menil Collection's ongoing exhibition of tribal art owned by the Surrealists, one is surrounded by an incongruous assemblage of masks, costumes, and strange objects representing ancient and pop culture combining to create the unexpected "analogies" Carpenter refers to. Among tribal masks invoking indigenous culture and rituals, modern mythic figures including Mickey Mouse and Mutt and Jeff appear as carvings by Hopi and Eskimo natives respectively.
In the near future, we may find the Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj Halloween costumes under glass in The Menil Collection's Surrealism galleries as each ladies' hair, make up, and outfits are an irreverent collision of tribal art and Western pop culture. Their costumes signify that they're here to play the roles of pop stars as well as spirits from the other side.
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"You could be the King but watch the Queen conquer! Ok, first things first I'll eat your brains, Then I'mma start rocking gold teeth and fangs, Cause that's what a muthafucking monster do!" Nicki Minaj from "Monster"
Occasionally, like any shaman(ette), Gaga and Minaj can appear to be nearly overwhelmed physically and emotionally by the visions they want to share. In videos, concerts, and weird public appearances (like Lady Gaga's meeting with Queen Elizabeth), we are witness to these two women enduring genuine physical discomfort as a result of the construction of their costumes. In a recent interview in Rolling Stone, Lady Gaga said: "I've got scratch marks all over my arms...it's from my costumes. When I pass out onstage, they say I'm burning out, when...it's fucking hot up there and I'm working my ass off." There's a physical and mental toll on the one bearing the experience of a spiritual guide. Chain mail, stilettos, and flame-throwing brassieres will wear out even the strongest of women. And when it comes to the mental toll, both women are bearing the brunt of unsubstantiated accusations regarding their sexuality, cosmetic surgery, and - in the case of Lady Gaga - their gender.
When we see someone in an "outrageous" costume and criticize it as "too much," we usually take a second or third look in spite of ourselves, because what we really see is an opportunity to experience and navigate a world of energy that percolates just beyond our limited perception of reality. That's what masks are meant to do - and Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj wear them well. Through their masks and costumes, these ladies signify that we can and do transcend the pain of being alive and enjoy our communal rituals.