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Phyllis Galembo: Maske - Giving Masks New Meaning

Museum Show About African Mask-Making Traditions Takes on New Meanings at the Boca Raton Museum of Art

Museum goers were spellbound when the exhibition Phyllis Galembo: Maske originally opened on January 28 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Shortly after the opening, the Museum temporarily closed due to the pandemic. 

As a new wave of mask-making creativity takes hold, the Museum’s education team has created new digital pathways for the public to enjoy online

Watch the new video tour:

These include mask-related online activities for families who are still at home, and video gallery tours for all ages. 

“Protective face masks aren’t just medical anymore, we can see on social media how they are becoming a part of fashion, of our cultural landscape. Ways that people can convey messages and reflect their own personality,” said the photographer Phyllis Galembo.

Her exhibition "Maske" has taken on new meanings after the pandemic made face masks part of our culture, and the museum has responded by making her show available online to people in quarantine at home.

(Illustration by Raquel Ramirez)

“For many people all over the world now, creating and wearing masks feels like a way they can reclaim some personal power,” adds Phyllis Galembo. 

(Illustration by Raquel Ramirez)

The Museum has also extended the show for an additional four months, until September 20, to allow people time to experience these works in person after safe guidelines for re-opening.

The Museum’s YouTube Channel, Instagram and Facebook feature new digital resources related to the exhibition and masks (#BocaMuseumatHome). 

“Viewers can see in this exhibition how the tradition of masquerading has always been universal and timeless,” said Irvin Lippman, the Executive Director of the Museum. 

 “The powerful photographs by Galembo that were selected for this exhibition reveal the meticulous detail and creative imagination of mask-making.”

Galembo's portraits, such as the one below, are nearly life-size and explore spiritual realms of these masquerade cultures with brilliant, mesmerizing colors.

For more than 30 years, Phyllis Galembo has traveled around the world to photograph participants in contemporary mask-making and masquerade events that range from traditional religious ceremonies to secular celebrations.

Galembo's portraits are celebrated by the world’s leading fine art photography editors for their stunning resonance. 

Through her lens, the viewer gains special access to these rarely seen other-worlds, she captures the raw and sometimes frightening aspects of ceremonial garb. She has made over twenty trips to sites of ritual masquerades, capturing cultural performances with a subterranean edge.

The masking seen through her photographs is a complex, mysterious, and profound tradition. The participants transcend the physical world and enter the spiritual realm.

(Illustration by Raquel Ramirez)

“Protective face masks aren’t just medical anymore, we can see on social media how they are becoming a part of fashion, of our cultural landscape. Ways that people can convey messages and reflect their own personality,” said Phyllis Galembo. (Illustration by Raquel Ramirez)

“Galembo’s portraits underscore cross-cultural complexities of meaning and purpose--asmillions are creating their own masks, many with a sense ofintention to express special meanings through their designs,” adds Irvin Lippman.

Affianwan, by Phyllis Galembo. Calibar South, Nigeria, (2005)

Galembo's photographs depict the physical character, costumes, and rituals of African religious practices and their diasporic manifestations in the Caribbean and Mexico.

The costumes in Galembo’s photographs are worn in several types of modern-day rituals. They are created to summon ancestral spirits and deities during a range of events, including agricultural hardships, land disputes, rites of passage, funerals, harvests, moments of gratitude and celebration.

Aye Loja (The World is a Market Place that we Visit), Gelede Masquerade, by Phyllis Galembo. Agonli Village, Benin, (2006)

The masks and costumes in these photographs are made from a wide variety of surprising materials ─ leaves, grass, patterned fabrics, burlap sacks, full-bodied crocheted yarns, colored raffia, quills, shells, and even lizard excrement. 

The modern world finds its way into these masks with the usage of plastic bags, cardboard, and found objects.

Otoghe-Toghe, by Phyllis Galembo. Aromgba Village, Nigeria, (2005), Ilfochrome

Galembo’s large-scale portraits in this exhibition capture the mask-oriented cultural traditions of Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.

All of her photographs are shot as portraits rather than during the act of ritual. She is allowed to photograph her subjects at the very moment right before their rituals and festivities commence.

Galembo prefers her colors to be brightly saturated, enhancing the spiritual and transformative powers of these garments. 

“I never see my subjects out of costume,” adds Galembo.

More About the Artist: Phyllis Galembo

Attuned to a moment’s collision of past, present, and future, Phyllis Galembo is recognized for her ability to find the timeless elegance and dignity of her photographic subjects.

Using a direct, unaffected portrait style, she captures her subjects informally posed but often beautifully attired in traditional and ritualistic dress. 

She highlights the creativity of the individuals morphing into a fantastical representation of themselves, having cobbled together materials gathered from the immediate environment to idealize their vision of mythical figures. 

While still pronounced in their personal identity, the subject’s intentions are rooted in the larger dynamics of religious, political and cultural affiliation. Establishing these connections is the artist's hallmark.

Galembo was born 1952 in New York, where she continues to live and work. She graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1977, and is a Professor Emeritus at Albany, State University of New York since 1978.

Her photographs are included in numerous public and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. She is represented by Axis Gallery.

Galembo's work has appeared in Tar Magazine, Damn Magazine, Photograph and Harpers. She has been profiled on CNN, NPR Radio and NBC Today. 

Other collections that feature her work include: Oceania and the Americas, Photography Study Collection (New York); the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Houston Museum of Art; the International Center for Photography (New York); the British Art Museum, Yale University; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library; Polaroid Corporation (Boston); and the Rockefeller Foundation, among many others. 

About the Boca Raton Museum of Art

Celebrating our 70th anniversary in 2020, the Boca Raton Museum of Art encompasses a creative campus that includes the Museum in Mizner Park, Art School, and an Artists Guild. As the "Official Art Museum of the City of Boca Raton, "the Museum has provided seven decades of cultural and artistic service to the community, and to many visitors from around the world. Open 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; 10:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m. on Thursdays; and 12:00-5:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Visit for more information.


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