about Phyllis Galembo and Carnival's history

Started out centuries ago as a result of a cross-cultural exchange, Carnival is still a way to get in touch with our roots and a chance to get in touch with each other. The meaning of the word dates back to the Italian tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent. Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival Carnevale or “to put away the meat”.

As time passed, carnivals in Italy became quite famous, and the practice spread to France, Spain, and all the Catholic countries in Europe. Then as the French, Spanish, and Portuguese began to take control of the Americas and other parts of the world, they brought with them their tradition of celebrating Carnival.

Masquerade by Phyllis Galembo 8

Masquerade by Phyllis Galembo 9

Once Columbus had steered his boat through Caribbean waters, it was only a few hundred years before the slave trade was well established. By the early 19th century, some six million slaves had been brought to the Caribbean. Between 1836 and 1917, indentured workers from Europe, west and central Africa, southern China, and India were brought to the Caribbean as laborers.

Important to Caribbean festival arts are the ancient African traditions of parading and moving in circles through villages in costumes and masks. Circling villages was believed to bring good fortune, to heal problems, and chill out angry relatives who had died and passed into the next world. Carnival traditions also borrow from the African tradition of putting together natural objects — bones, grasses, beads, shells, fabric — to create a piece of sculpture, a mask, or costume — with each object or combination of objects representing a certain idea or spiritual force.

Gelede Masquerade, Agonli-Houegbo Village, Benin

Ekpo, Calabar, Nigeria

Fascinated by masquerading rituals in Africa and the Caribbean, the photographer Phyllis Galembo, now a professor of fine art at Albany University in New York, has spent more than 20 years capturing the masquerade’s myriad forms, following festivals and carnivals across Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso, and combining art and anthropology.

She collected Halloween costumes for over 15 years before starting to work on traditional religions in Nigeria, Haiti and Brazil:

“I went back to Nigeria and after having photographed priests and priestesses there I focused on masquerade dancers in Benin, Voodoun and Jacmel Carnival in Haiti and a lot of other colourful, energetic places.

Egungun, Adandokpodji Village, Benin

Gwarama Masquerade, Yegueresso Village, Burkina Faso

I do focus on the artistic and aesthetic side first, but I’m also very interested in the story behind the colourful costumes. Colour is a large part of the costume and the ritual. Elements like colour, light and the right background strengthen the photo and the narrative.

It’s only staged in that I have to get the local’s permission to pose first. Then I have my portable studio, which makes it possible to bring the colours to light this much. So I only use my materials for technical reasons, it’s not staged: I set the stage and that’s it.

Masquerade by Phyllis Galembo


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