If there’s one piece of headgear that has permeated every culture, it’s the mask. It’s present in the rituals of ancient man, in Greek bacchanalias, in Roman saturnalias, in Himalayan ceremonies, in Japanese theatre, in Mexican parades, in holidays from the Samhain to Purim, in the oeuvre of Andrew Lloyd Webber. While the motivation for mask-wearing varies wildly by culture, a central connector must be the temporary, and liberating, replacement of the self.
Phyllis Galembo’s striking and illuminating “Maske,” a small exhibition that opened recently at Boca Raton Museum of Art, samples work from her three decades of portrait photography of masked revelers in Africa. As the accompanying wall text points out, Galembo is “neither anthropologist nor documentary photographer.” She is a visual artist, and for the purpose of this series, she’s more interested in capturing formal portraits than “action shots;” her job is finished before her subjects’ ceremonies begin.
Their rationales for wearing their homemade costumes—as well as, perhaps, their creativity—vary wildly, from scrappy to ostentatious. Some don disguises for religious purposes, others secular, and they hail from Benin, Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. What most connects them is the sense shared by masked people worldwide: to subsume their common appearance with that of a momentary, transcendent Other.
The extent to which the human disappears into the costume is often astonishing; many are so covered that only an occasional arm or leg is visible among the secondhand materials that have been upcycled into makeshift apparel. If the spectator didn’t know any better, she might think she was looking at posed dolls. In “Affianwan,” the figure is virtually unrecognizable underneath its sprouting billows of headgear. In “Jaguar Style or Okong-Itaghafon,” two subjects are draped in voluminous, motley strips of fabric; one’s face is completely covered.
In other images, such as “Akata Dance Masqueraders,” eyes emerge out of makeshift holes in a burlap sack; in “Two in a Fancy Dress,” the dancers’ real eyes are visible, just barely, under wider, painted versions. In “Egungun,” the face has been replaced by a mesh void, suggesting a kind of existential erasure.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps I’m bringing too much western-art psychoanalysis into a culture, and a photography series, far removed from these traditions. Certainly, American viewers will bring associations that unduly cloud this exhibition; to my eyes, some of the masks are a horror-movie designers conception for a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake. “A Spirit They Saw,” with its red-and-white shroud shot in profile, seems poised for its cameo in a theatrical ghost story. I also saw delight and humor in “You Can’t Buy Wisdom at the Market,” whose subject appears to be riding an animal, with a painted canine grinning maniacally from its perch atop his head.
For many viewers, these images may alternate between haunting and absurdist, shocking and inspiring. Yet despite, and even because, of their design flaws, these masks and costumes are beautiful in their commitment to an experience beyond the prosaic.
As I left the exhibition, I could think of no modern correlative in this country. Convention-attending cosplayers, who endeavor to disappear into their favorite pop-culture avatars, bury their creativity in mimicry. The visions of “Maske” are invented, literally, out of whole cloth, often to appease gods, not peers and judges. I feel privileged to have experienced, even at such a far geographic and cultural remove, Galembo’s curated gallery of their extraordinary work.
“Maske” runs through May 31 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Admission costs $10-$12. Call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.