New York Photo Review
from the NYPR Archives

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Soho Photo Gallery
Central Booking Magazine

African Masquerade
Phyllis Galembo
Maske
Susanna Sloat
Phyllis Galembo, “Fancy Dress and Rasta, Nobles Masquerade Group, Winneba, Ghana,” 2009

The images in Phyllis Galembo’s “Maske” show at Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea are striking: 16, large-format color prints beautifully made. As usual in a gallery, they are presented without labels. Pictures from the same festival or event (never more than two) are not necessarily side by side – they may not be in the same room. Visually this is an intriguing show. But it calls out for context.

Some is provided by the price list, which I carried around with me, though casual visitors did not. Now I knew what town and country each print came from and the straightforward titles told me what the masqueraders from several African countries and Haiti represented. The couple, in elaborately decorated, rather 18th century suits with fluffy orange fringe over chartreuse tights, wearing equally fluffy slippers, a towering confection of a hat over his painted face and a wig of black dreadlocks over hers, were “Fancy Dress and Rasta, Nobles Masquerade Group,” Winneba, Ghana, 2009. Four children, equally elaborately attired across the room, are from the same festival. But what kind of celebration is this? When did it start? What does it mean?

 by unidentified photographer.
Phyllis Galembo, “Water Buffalo Devil, Red Indians, Freetown, Sierra Leone,” 2008

I was equally intrigued by the “Water Buffalo Devil, Red Indians,” Freetown, Sierra Leone, 2008. Devils and Red Indians are common in Caribbean carnival masquerades (and the inclusion of two pictures from Haiti suggests the African—Caribbean connection), but this masquerader didn’t seem to be either; rather it was definitely a water buffalo, who seemed enclosed in a beautiful and real water buffalo skin, (though it’s not clear if his gracefully curving black horn, draped with a couple of white handkerchiefs came from a real animal). On his back he wore a fantastic compilation of spikes and balls; on his front a long bib, perhaps woven of beads, and a highly decorative guitar front. Like most other images in “Maske,” his masquerade was complete; he was covered from head to toe. And like the other masqueraders, he was formally posed, but this time in front of a trash-strewn lot, full of paper, plastic, and tires. There were other images from Freetown, 2008, including a masquerader obscured by a simple flow of white and red cloth, as if headless: “Awo-O-Dudu (A Spirit They Saw).” But what was the connection? I wasn’t sure they were from the same festival.

Clearly these 21st century photographs represent 21st century African masquerade in all its complexity. Materials are generally contemporary. When they incorporate carving, as does a Nigerian masquerader with what seems like a horned antelope or goat head mask atop his cloth-covered head, or another Nigerian in a Janus mask, the carvings are not of the quality of the masterworks of the past. Some of the costumes, like the Ghanian Nobles or the Water Buffalo or the Atal masqueraders from Nigeria in elaborately beaded and varying abstract patterns, are meticulously made.

The costumes of masqueraders in two photographs from Zambia seem to be made, refreshingly, of traditional materials, though one carries a wooden rifle. But the imaginative “Ghost and Bull, Dodo Masquerade,” from Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, 2009, are two masqueraders costumed with inexpensive, more hastily assembled goods, with lots of fringe and masks made from cardboard boxes–a Paperbag Players kind of masquerade, though the festival may have as long a history and as intense a meaning as any.

The Ghost’s mask has a sky blue painted face set in natural cardboard, with white fringe over it. A tall, thin man in a white cloth costume with more white fringe and colored strips over his shoulder, he does look ghostly as holds a whip in his uncovered hand over the kneeling bull. The bull’s arms, hands, and legs are also partly visible under cascades of white, pink, and gold fringe. His head is clearly from a box, though the cut-out ears and white painted snout, simple dots making clear his large eyes and nostrils, are evocatively bull-like.

The typical gallery presentation satisfied my eyes but hardly my curiosity. I needed to know more. I needed the book. Except for an exhibition copy, the Kasher Gallery had sold out of “Maske,” by Phyllis Galembo, with its very interesting introduction by the Nigerian art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu, now at Princeton, discussing fascinating questions of contemporary African masquerade. Galembo framed each section of photographs of a particular ceremony or festival with a description of what was taking place. I wish I’d been able to read them as well as Okeke-Agulu’s introduction. The book (published by Chris Boot) promises to reveal much of what is happening with African masquerade right now. Cultures change; the new and old, the indigenous and the imported collide and are transformed in imaginative current mixes.

This exhibition at Steven Kasher is just a teaser.

Phyllis Galembo
Maske


Steven Kasher Gallery
521 W 23rd St.
Chelsea         Map

212 966 3978
stevenkasher.com

Wednesday, March 2 to
Saturday, April 2, 2011
Hours: Tue-Sat, 11 to 6
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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery