Treasures from the Vault: Phyllis Galembo

Bayan Yunis, FWMoA Education Intern

Ano Women’s Masquerade, Nigeria is one of many photographs in Phyllis Galembo’s monograph, a publication of an artist’s work, Maske. Documented in 2004, this image captures two vibrant masquerading women in the Alok Village in the Igboland region of southeastern Nigeria.

A photograph of two Nigerian women in full masquerade costume, covered completely from head to toe. Standing in front of a huge tree, on the right the woman's costume is intricate gold and black circles with colored tassels. Next to her, the other woman wears a golden yellow with a purpley-pink floral pattern and tassels across the bust, bottom hem, and shirtsleeves like her counterpart.
Phyllis Galembo, American, b. 1952. Ano Women’s Masquerade, Night. Digital chromogenic print on paper, 2004. Museum purchase, 2018.278.10. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

This piece is composed of two main elements: the cool-toned, natural background and the warm and vibrantly costumed subjects. Galembo’s goal is to showcase the masqueraders’ costumes in their authentic background, noting that she doesn’t pre-determine, or bring anything, to pose her subjects against, but rather relies on what she finds suitable in the environment.

The variance in the warmth of the background and subjects intensifies the contrast between the costumes and environment. The warmth of the costumes helps bring the subjects forward while the coolness of the background pushes back to create the illusion of more depth between the two, focusing the viewers’ attention on the costumes themselves.

Each costume consists of colorful, busy-patterned fabric and tassels, arranged across the bust, bottom hem, and shirtsleeves, that range from sky blue to Barbie pink. In Nigerian culture, bright colors symbolize various concepts relating to the human experience and communicate status. In this photograph, the main colors used in the tassels are red, green, light and dark blue, and pink. Red is described as the color of passionate love and seduction as well as violence, danger, and anger. Green is used to signify growth, rebirth, and fertility. Light blue conveys the ideas of peace, serenity, and spirituality while dark blue symbolizes  trust, dignity, intelligence, and authority. Lastly, the color pink is considered to be feminine, representing love, care, and tenderness. This combination of colors, from the pink conveying femininity to the green representing fertility, is likely curated to portray the masqueraders as female and/or possessing feminine qualities.

Masquerades are integral to celebrating and showcasing Nigeria’s spiritual, religious, and cultural heritage and identity. In Igboland, the masquerades appear during festivals and traditional celebrations like births, marriages, and burials. Masqueraders are manifestations of ancestral spirits or deities, and thus superior beings. Every masquerade holds distinct attributes that distinguish them and build a storyline or personality, some are related to war while others pertain to beauty or old age. In addition, many masqueraders have specialized skills, such as dancing, acrobatics, and talking.

With knowing the connotation of the color combinations used in the tassels, as well as knowing that two women are masquerading in this photograph from the title, we can infer that both of the figures are meant to portray past female ancestors or deities.

To find her subjects in Nigeria, Galembo partook in a number of rituals due to the nature of the festivities. With the help of interpreters, she made meaningful connections with her potential subjects and those orchestrating the festivities to establish trust.

Many cultures believe that photographing spiritual rituals will capture the souls of those performing them, and that even allowing outsiders to watch, let alone participate, can diminish the spiritual connection that occurs during these events. Without the proper connections, photographing these spiritual rituals is disrespectful and can compromise the ritual itself, making it difficult to ethically capture, especially in the context of capitalizing off of others’ culture. In Galembo’s experience, she has found herself waiting anywhere from a few hours up to a few days to find willing muses to photograph.

Phyllis Galembo has always found costumes interesting, from establishing a collection of Halloween costumes to making a Tom and Jerry mask while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Galembo began her career in photography after travelling to Nigeria for the first time in 1985. During that trip, she became fascinated by the masquerades and interested in documenting them. Since then, Galembo has traveled and photographed throughout West Africa, Haiti, and Mexico. Presently, she is interested in documenting these moments to provide a visual history of the previously undocumented masquerade culture.

You can see treasures like this one and others in the FWMoA Print & Drawing Study Center by making an appointment with FMWoA Curator of Prints & Drawings Sachi Yanari-Rizzo.

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