The Brooklyn Museum is all shook up — over an African mask that looks like none other than Elvis Presley.
This Elvis sighting comes courtesy of the museum’s new exhibition, “African Innovations,” a mix of contemporary and ancient art pieces that emphasize interactions and familiarity with other parts of the world.
The intriguing tribal piece, worn by members of the Nyau, a society of the Chewa peoples in Malawi, is part of a genre of ceremonial masks that depict the King. And it’s the cream of the crop.
“This is the best of this genre that I’ve seen,” said Brooklyn Museum curator Kevin Dumouchelle. “It’s the most that actually looks like Elvis, with the long, hairy sideburns and pompadour.”
Indeed, there’s the slight curl of the hair at the forehead and the trademark facial hair, as well as his dark, soulful eyes, and you can almost make out a snarl of the lips.
The hand-craved wooden piece was made in 1977 — the year of the King’s death — and would have been worn during socialization rituals to show young boys improper behavior, like hand-holding in public. Similarly used masks depict Charlie Chaplin, colonial officers and the Virgin Mary, said Dumouchelle, though he couldn’t say why Elvis specifically was depicted for this use, and if it had anything to do personally with the hip-swiveling hound dog.
“I’m not entirely sure if they knew of the late Elvis’s behavior,” said Dumouchelle.
The Elvis mask, which is on view indefinitely as part of the exhibition, is a nice get for the museum.
“I don’t know of many public museums that have them out on display,” said Dumouchelle, who’s been wanting to get a piece like this in the museum’s collection for a number of years. “We’re breaking some ground.”
The curator wisely assumes the Elvis mask will be a big draw.
“It’s just kind of funny and unusual enough to catch your eye,” said Dumouchelle, though he hopes museum goers will use the opportunity to also explore the rest of the exhibition, which features 200 objects from the museum’s collection of African art, including “Mother with Child (Lupingu Lua Luimpe),” a Lulua sculpture from the Democratic Republic of the Congo that is considered to be one of the great masterpieces of African art.
Still, it’d be hard to upstage the King, and, indeed, visitors to the museum on Sunday were immediately drawn to the peculiar mask, which is found rather unceremoniously in the corner of the exhibit, in front of an air vent.
“I can’t see too well, but I saw it from across the museum,” said Jack Ucciardino of Bensonhurst. “I thought, ‘What’s Elvis doing here?’ ”
His companion, Stacy Marshall, wasn’t so taken with the piece.
“It’s ugly,” said the Sheepshead Bay resident. “What’s wrong with his nose? It’s not a very good depiction.”
Still, she took a picture with her cellphone camera.
Other museum-goers were curious about the piece, but were left with more questions than answers.
“How do you wear it?” wondered Dan Greenberg, who was visiting from Connecticut. “I would love to see a video of how they used it.”
For others, those curiosities are the mask’s charm.
“It’s definitely a good museum piece,” said Aaron Harry of East New York. “You could contemplate about it for hours.”
“African Innovations” at the Brooklyn Museum [200 Eastern Pkwy. at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, (718) 638-5000], open now indefinitely. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.