Phyllis Galembo

BY Lyle Rexer, March 2, 2020

Maske, an exhibition on view at Florida’s Boca Raton Museum of Art before it closed temporarily because of the coronavirus, showcases the unique place that Phyllis Galembo has established for herself in contemporary photography. For more than four decades, she has been traveling primarily throughout Africa and the Americas to catalogue the costumes of ritual performance and celebration. A visual ethnographer with an aesthetic approach, Galembo has compiled an increasingly important cultural archive, as her most recent book, Mexico Masks Rituals (Radius/DAP), makes abundantly clear. As societies change and practices disappear or are transformed, her portraits not only retain the details of cultural production, they also serve as a continuing celebration of creativity and a reminder of the value of human diversity.

©Phyllis Galembo, Two in a Fancy Dress, Red Cross Masquerade Group, Winneba, Ghana, 2010. All images courtesy Axis Gallery
©Phyllis Galembo, Affianwan, Calabar South, Nigeria, 2005

Lyle Rexer: I had first been in touch with you several years ago for a project about Gabon, although I had seen your photographs from Haiti at the Museum of Natural History in 1998, in the landmark exhibition on Vodou. I wonder, did the Gabon project come to fruition? 

Phyllis Galembo: There were a lot of people involved and it’s still in process. It may yet result in a book or another form of presentation. Great pictures came out of the project for me, and since then I have returned to Gabon several times on my own.

LR: Your masking projects have taken you to a lot of places, some of them fairly remote. How do you prepare for a project? 

PG: Projects reveal themselves in a variety of ways. I always organize a local assistant before traveling. I try to gather as much information as possible, which is difficult since I prefer to document lesser-known events. My work began in a predigital era and initial contacts came through friends, colleagues, and books. This process is always challenging, although there are more possibilities with the internet now, which is a great way to connect with people globally. For example, in the early 2000s, I was invited by Elle magazine to travel to Sierra Leone to work on an article about Shine on Sierra Leone, a nonprofit that sponsors schools, micro loans, and women’s health care. So I went from photographing a Victoria’s Secret model in a classroom to working out how to get access to the costume makers in the Kroo Bay section of Freetown. Once that Elle job was finished, I stayed on to work with a local assistant, tracking down various masquerades and costumes. 

LR: Almost everything you shoot is portraiture, and fairly straightforward, sometimes almost forensic. How did you find your way to such an approach, which borders on old-school ethnography? 

PG: From the time I was in high school I have been interested in portraiture as a way to meet people. In college I pored over pictures by Diane Arbus, August Sander, and Irving Penn. Making color intaglio prints sparked my interest in color, and I started making photographs using backdrops and sets. In 1985 I went to Nigeria to document ritual clothing with a focus on various deities, such as Olokun (goddess of the sea) and Shango (deity of thunder and lightning). Although I wasn’t creating the environments, there is a theatrical element to the photographs. I wanted to make pictures that contained information and would have a long life and a universal audience. For the next 15 years, I traveled to Brazil to document the religion known as Candomblé and to Haiti to photograph priests and priestesses of Haitian Vodou [published by 10 Speed Press in Vodou: Visions and Voices of Haiti, 1998]. I also started collecting Halloween costumes, and my collection of more than 500 costumes evolved into the book Dressed for Thrills: 100 Years of Halloween Costumes and Masquerade (Harry N. Abrams, 2002). 

©Phyllis Galembo, Banana Leaf Masquerade, EkongIkon Ukom, Calabar, Nigeria, 2005
©Phyllis Galembo, Jaguar Style or Ekong-Itaghafon, Calabar, Nigeria, 2005

LR: How do you set your agenda of locations?  I see you following the African diaspora of masking practices, though not in a straight line, but beyond that? 

PG:I don’t set my agenda. I am often guided by my intuition. Luck and karma play a role.

 LR: Haiti, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, these are all places that have seen their share of problems over the last several decades. Did you ever think, maybe you shouldn’t be there?

 PG: In all the places I’ve been, I’ve never had serious trouble. Often hours are spent to be able to photograph one or two masqueraders, and then we realize the ceremony is private, and we leave. There have been times I was asked not to photograph, and of course I complied. I like to spend as much time in a place as possible. The more time I spend in a place, the more I discover reasons to go back. 

LR: That would seem to be true of Mexico. I had no idea, even with the Day of the Dead celebrations, that there is such a wealth of contemporary masking. 

PG: I had been going to Mexico since the 1970s. Years later, the artist José Bedia suggested I photograph Yaqui Semana Santa rituals. Those pictures never happened since access was forbidden, but I photographed other Easter rituals, and that began the focus on Mexico. I discovered the xita maskers, with their headdresses of maguey fibers, and a Michael Jackson mask that was part of a “sweeper” costume during the festival of Corpus Christi (a sweeper cleans the streets before the start of the festival). I continue to discover new communities and unique celebrations every time I visit. 

LR: Obviously there are many political issues associated with anything ethnographic, not the least being that the subjects are portrayed to appear locked into a timeless stasis, a time of ritual. But what I really like, especially in many of the Mexico portraits, is that the contemporary peeks out from behind the ancient mask, so to speak. Sometimes it’s just the way the subjects smile or relate to you. There is an immediacy of contact that breaks down stereotypes and alters the balance of power, or so it feels to me.

 PG: My goal is not to pursue some supposedly “authentic” version of masks. The celebrations and rituals are about what’s happening now. They are about plastic masks and modern dress as much as they are about traditions. I am just beginning to hear “make sure you hashtag us.” Traditions get updated. Even though the world is changing, the making and wearing of costumes continues. People’s creativity continues. That’s what I want to show.

©Phyllis Galembo, Akata Dance Masquerade, Cross River, Nigeria, 2004