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Masquerade by Phyllis Galembo

with essay by Skye Arundhati Thomas

Masquerade by Phyllis Galembo

with essay by Skye Arundhati Thomas

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Photographs by Phyllis Galembo
with essay by Skye Arundhati Thomas

This story originally appeared in
SOL 2. Kyoyuk issue 2019

Everyday History
by Skye Arundhati Thomas

The history of European Modernity is indebted to the mask traditions of Africa. The single introduction of a mask—by poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire to Pablo Picasso—transformed the latter’s handling of the pictorial plane: he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, which blew open the figurative tendencies of European formalism. Parisian art dealer and self-fashioned collector of antiquity Paul Guillaume, who would host small “African Art” exhibitions in Paris, introduced Apollinaire to African objects.
The Dadaists caught on a few years later, with Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings’s Cabaret Voltaire, desiring a new wave of Parisian Boheme that rejected the idiosyncratic sensibilities of polite European sociality. The Dadaists used poly-sacred African objects (wood and metal masks; textile and vegetable fibre sculptures) to oppose the sentiments of petit-bourgeois privilege. They were particularly taken by the pre-1892 sculptural tradition of the ngangas (Bantu for spiritual healers) and the Power Figures of the Vili Kingdom of Loango, Congo.
The Dadaists, of course, never visited the Congo, or any parts of Africa, and were introduced to the objects in the same way Picasso was—second-hand. It was not just an anti-bourgeois sentiment that drove the links: in spiritual and supernatural mask making and sculptural traditions artists were able to forego the object’s decorative, static figurations and infuse it with grandstanding intellectual pursuits. Modernity thus arrived with a tendency to appropriate the objects and cultures of the global South, and history often forgets this link. It is important to reiterate it thus: modernity is inextricable from its origins in the ancient discourses of the global south.

Phyllis Galembo’s, since the mid-1980s, has been actively photographing the mask traditions of Africa— in Zambia, Benin, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, and Haiti, to name a few—take us straight to the source. She photographs portraits of dressed-up performers during festivals, celebrations and even secret society meetings. We are given interludes where the mask and costumes are on full, and quite brilliant, display. She handles the portraits with careful formal attention to the masks themselves, and the costumes that match.

The images are marked by their similarity to anthropological survey but vividness and movement give them a contemporary tinge: we are not witness an unbroken tradition but something hybrid and dynamic, a history that permeates into the everyday. It is also a history that imbibes the everyday. To focus in the on the images is to reach a kind of aesthetic clarity, where no detail is compromised in the making of the whole. Galembo has also extensively photographed in Asia and the Pacific.

In an image taken in India in 2013 we see a yellow-clad figure wearing a gold Hanuman mask (a deity as well as a central figure in Valmiki’s Ramayana—an epic 24,000 verse poem, whose earliest versions can be traced back to sometime between the 7th and 4th Centuries BCE) perched upon a green throne. Hanuman’s eyes are large, wide and anime-like in their curiosity, as is his broad smile. In another image from the same year, a man wears the round mask of a bald saint, his body clad in the glistening brocade of Benarasi silk. His sari is pink and filled with dusky gold and green paisley swirls. A peeling wall behind reads ‘HOLY HEARTS’, the residue of a hand-painted sign. The images don’t have to work hard to look good: each setting is vivid and full of details, as are the materials of the masks and costumes.

Masks are, of course, not simply objects; neither do they purely serve a semiotic function. They are not the result of individual identities, nor of singular histories. A mask is community, history, and collective ancestry. In the Indian mask traditions—where masks are either static, mechanical (animatronic, where the eyes might blink open and close, and the mouth yawn), or even transformative (one mask opening to reveal another)—the community around the mask is born from the moment of its creation. Masks also engender communities around their dissemination, wearing and performance. When used in performances, the wearers of the masks engage with the histories that have come before them, slipping into the loose and unwieldy fabric of time, in which narratives are long and continuous.

In the river island town of Majuli—the largest river island in the wold—a mask-making tradition continues from the 16th Century. The town, floating along the Assamese banks of the Brahmaputra river, is the site of a vibrant street and music theatre scene, especially during festival months. Mask artists in Majuli, like the many mask artists of the subcontinent, have been passing on the technique, skill and material knowledge of the traditions through generations. The skills and the stories locked within them are oral histories, and they continue the legacy of an ancient language. The Hanuman mask is a familiar sight in Majuli, as dramatic retellings of the Ramayana continue through the subcontinent enthusiastically continue into the present day.

Exactly because of their steady retelling, oral histories maintain a crucial role in the postcolonial moment: they are political agents that evolve and carry the trace of generations, migration and cultural hybridity. The act of decolonisation requires a return to the oral history—in fact, as many postcolonial scholars have argued, this is the most crucial return—because it is in the oral history that we may oppose, update and reconfigure dominant historical narratives. It is also in the oral traditions, and by extension in the traditions of performance that we may begin to develop new narratives towards a decolonial history, and new languages that resist old hegemonic tellings.

What the appropriating nature of those early Modernist experiments with African technique did—in their flattening of the pictorial plane, the stripping of figuration to simpler, more geometric two-dimensionalities—is lose a fundamental essence of the Power Object (that of the spiritual, supernatural or performative): objects that were about community were made into singular identities. The collective turned into the individual. Galembo’s images instead lay out the entire tableau.

What the anthropological narrative often does in the writing of mask traditions is to categorise them by their relation to the supernatural or the spiritual: when in fact the mask, and its correlating performance, are in complex communion with the past, present and future. Galembo often captures performers at this moment of transformation: somewhere a head is thrown back in laughter, or a hand curved upwards in the a dance—here identity has grown out of its singular appearance and merged in with the identities of the past and the future.

As Martinican scholar and novelist Edouard Glissant has so perfectly articulated in the Poetics of Relation (1990), the new language and history of the future will recognize that relation is at first a principle of narration, which forms a network of narrative relations. This is Glissant’s central argument towards rewriting history: to privilege that which has not been written, that which continues to exist in the everyday, and that which resists structural semiotics by always opening up to its network of relations.

To observe a single costume or mask is to look at decades—even centuries—of hybridity and movement.

Phyllis Galembo’s, since the mid-1980s, has been actively photographing the mask traditions of Africa— in Zambia, Benin, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, and Haiti, to name a few—take us straight to the source. She photographs portraits of dressed-up performers during festivals, celebrations and even secret society meetings. We are given interludes where the mask and costumes are on full, and quite brilliant, display. She handles the portraits with careful formal attention to the masks themselves, and the costumes that match.

The images are marked by their similarity to anthropological survey but vividness and movement give them a contemporary tinge: we are not witness an unbroken tradition but something hybrid and dynamic, a history that permeates into the everyday. It is also a history that imbibes the everyday. To focus in the on the images is to reach a kind of aesthetic clarity, where no detail is compromised in the making of the whole. Galembo has also extensively photographed in Asia and the Pacific.

In an image taken in India in 2013 we see a yellow-clad figure wearing a gold Hanuman mask (a deity as well as a central figure in Valmiki’s Ramayana—an epic 24,000 verse poem, whose earliest versions can be traced back to sometime between the 7th and 4th Centuries BCE) perched upon a green throne. Hanuman’s eyes are large, wide and anime-like in their curiosity, as is his broad smile. In another image from the same year, a man wears the round mask of a bald saint, his body clad in the glistening brocade of Benarasi silk. His sari is pink and filled with dusky gold and green paisley swirls. A peeling wall behind reads ‘HOLY HEARTS’, the residue of a hand-painted sign. The images don’t have to work hard to look good: each setting is vivid and full of details, as are the materials of the masks and costumes.

Masks are, of course, not simply objects; neither do they purely serve a semiotic function. They are not the result of individual identities, nor of singular histories. A mask is community, history, and collective ancestry. In the Indian mask traditions—where masks are either static, mechanical (animatronic, where the eyes might blink open and close, and the mouth yawn), or even transformative (one mask opening to reveal another)—the community around the mask is born from the moment of its creation. Masks also engender communities around their dissemination, wearing and performance. When used in performances, the wearers of the masks engage with the histories that have come before them, slipping into the loose and unwieldy fabric of time, in which narratives are long and continuous.

In the river island town of Majuli—the largest river island in the wold—a mask-making tradition continues from the 16th Century. The town, floating along the Assamese banks of the Brahmaputra river, is the site of a vibrant street and music theatre scene, especially during festival months. Mask artists in Majuli, like the many mask artists of the subcontinent, have been passing on the technique, skill and material knowledge of the traditions through generations. The skills and the stories locked within them are oral histories, and they continue the legacy of an ancient language. The Hanuman mask is a familiar sight in Majuli, as dramatic retellings of the Ramayana continue through the subcontinent enthusiastically continue into the present day.

Exactly because of their steady retelling, oral histories maintain a crucial role in the postcolonial moment: they are political agents that evolve and carry the trace of generations, migration and cultural hybridity. The act of decolonisation requires a return to the oral history—in fact, as many postcolonial scholars have argued, this is the most crucial return—because it is in the oral history that we may oppose, update and reconfigure dominant historical narratives. It is also in the oral traditions, and by extension in the traditions of performance that we may begin to develop new narratives towards a decolonial history, and new languages that resist old hegemonic tellings.

What the appropriating nature of those early Modernist experiments with African technique did—in their flattening of the pictorial plane, the stripping of figuration to simpler, more geometric two-dimensionalities—is lose a fundamental essence of the Power Object (that of the spiritual, supernatural or performative): objects that were about community were made into singular identities. The collective turned into the individual. Galembo’s images instead lay out the entire tableau.

What the anthropological narrative often does in the writing of mask traditions is to categorise them by their relation to the supernatural or the spiritual: when in fact the mask, and its correlating performance, are in complex communion with the past, present and future. Galembo often captures performers at this moment of transformation: somewhere a head is thrown back in laughter, or a hand curved upwards in the a dance—here identity has grown out of its singular appearance and merged in with the identities of the past and the future.

As Martinican scholar and novelist Edouard Glissant has so perfectly articulated in the Poetics of Relation (1990), the new language and history of the future will recognize that relation is at first a principle of narration, which forms a network of narrative relations. This is Glissant’s central argument towards rewriting history: to privilege that which has not been written, that which continues to exist in the everyday, and that which resists structural semiotics by always opening up to its network of relations.

To observe a single costume or mask is to look at decades—even centuries—of hybridity and movement.

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