EXHIBITION REVIEWS, PHYLLIS GALEMBO
Sepia / The Alkazi Collection, New York City, May 6 - August 12, 2005
Art in America December, 2005
Review of Exhibitions
Phyllis Galembo at Sepia International
Since the mid-1980s, Phyllis Galembo has produced an impressive body of photographs documenting the physical character, costumery and rituals of African religious practices and their diasporic manifestations in the Caribbean and South America. Using a direct, unaffected portrait style, Galembo captures her subjects informally posed but often strikingly attired in elaborate colored robes, spectacularly decorative fabrics, and spooky masks and makeup. Galembo’s subjects level a penetrating gaze at a photographic interpreter who has managed to collapse, for a moment, the cultural, racial and economic distance between herself and them.
The 32 photographs in this show ranged from images of participants in the Haitian Carnival to priests, priestesses, and religious fetishes and shrines in Brazil and Nigeria. Galembo’s photos establish an individual link, albeit fleeting and entirely esthetic, between the viewer and the otherworldly visual pleasure of her utterly distinctive subjects. In the most striking image, taken during Carnival (2004), three young boys—one standing in the foreground, one leaning against a graffiti-covered wall and another squatting on the right—are splattered in thick, rich red and green pigment, their eyes locked on the camera in a tableau of ethnic color, social mystery and a powerful sense of personal identity. The narrative title of another luminous photo (1995) tells us that the square hole in the floor in which a Haitian servitor is standing is a very sacred place; he is wearing a fedora and yellow shirt, with a ceremonial cup and a bottle arranged in front of him and an extraordinary deep turquoise wall behind. Galembo’s photos combine a careful, almost ethnographic observation with a deep sense of mystical wonder and a palpable personal connection with the people that she photographs.
- Calvin Reid
Time Out New York July 8 - August 3, 2005, Issue No. 513
Art - Reviews
Phyllis Galembo, Sepia International through Fri 29.
Since 1985, Phyllis Galembo has been photographing traditional priests and priestesses in Nigeria, as well as practitioners of African diasporic religions-- voudou in Haiti, Candomblé in Brazil. Her lush color portraits convey the mystery and range of their rituals, while documenting the pomp and glamour of their costumes, altars and religious objects.
The photographs in this 20-year survey can be loosely divided into two groups. Works from the '80s and '90s show devotees in spaces that have been transformed-- sometimes with little more than paint-- into shrines. In one image, a Haitian priestess stands between bright green walls under a canopy of red and blue cloth; elsewhere, a Brazilian girl dressed as Oxum, the orixá "spirit" of love, wears a gold dress, reflecting the sun painted behind her.
More recent photographs focus on the transformation of people, rather than of their environments. Masquerade dancers form Cross River, Nigeria, are covered from head to toe in striped and patchwork costumes, with unearthly faces perched on top of their heads, Carnaval performers from Jacmel, Haiti-- like the rakish Chief of the Devil Band, wielding an ax while wearing a black hat, red scarf and gold lamé skirt-- become creatures of fantasy.
Galembo's primary interest is the wearer's belief in the power of ritual costume to alter their everyday reality: The Cross River masqueraders become the revived spirits of dead ancestors while Haiti's disenfranchised poor, hidden under face paint and papier-mâché masks, become empowered political satirists. As her latest photographs make clear, Galembo wants views to see and appreciate who her subjects are, but more than that, who they believe themselves to be.
- Anne Doran
The New York Times July 15, 2005
ARTS / ART & DESIGN Art in Review
Phyllis Galembo, Sepia International, 148 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Through July 29
In the current vernacular, Phyllis Galembo photographs people of faith. For the last 20 years she has crisscrossed the Atlantic, taking pictures of traditional priests and priestesses in Benin City, Nigeria; voodoo healers in Haiti and New York; and masquerade dancers in Brazil and the Cross River State in Nigeria. Her images are both portraits and documents, but their combination of dignity, conviction and formal power - especially their vibrant colors and often extraordinary altars - gives them a votive aspect similar to European paintings of saints or kings.
This exhibition, Ms. Galembo's first gallery show in New York in nearly a decade, is a small retrospective. Photographs from the 1980's and 90's depict individuals in what Americans would call their places of worship. Several show Olokun priestesses from Benin City posed in white gowns in front of altars arrayed with objects. Malant Pierre, a Haitian voodoo priest dressed as Azaka, the spirit of agriculture, is seen against a wall painted with blue dots and figures. (These motifs may bring to mind the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the son of a Haitian-born accountant. ) In contrast, photographs taken in 2004 isolate lavishly costumed and masked dancers against relatively plain backgrounds. Lavish can mean painted with red and green for the Haitian carnival in Jacmel, as is the case with three small boys. Or it can mean brightly knitted head-to-toe bodysuits for three masked dancers from Cross River. (These could well have influenced the textile-covered sculptures of artists like Jim Drain and Justin Samson.)
While quite striking, these images lack the richness and power of the earlier images, in which the subjects seem to have touched every square inch of their settings. But they contribute their share to the revelatory nature of this show.
- Roberta Smith
The New Yorker July 4, 2005 Vol. LXXXI, No. 19, p. 21
Photography: Galleries – Chelsea
In Galembo’s photographs of carnival celebrants and vodou priests, her subjects are usually costumed and masked, but even when their faces are uncovered it’s clear that they’ve left their everyday identities far behind. Made over the past twenty years in Nigeria, Haiti, and Brazil, these terrifically theatrical images suggest that clothes—and a belief in the power of transformation—can indeed make the man or woman. Although the outfits here (many of which involve cross-dressing and body paint) can be comically outlandish, we can't fail to appreciate their ritual weight. Through July 29. (Sepia, 148 W. 24th St. 212-645-9444.)
David Bryne's Online Journal May 6, 2005
Went to an opening of a photo exposition by my friend Phyllis Galembo last night. I hadn’t seen her new work for a few years, so this was a chance to catch up. Wow. I was knocked out. The show was in a relatively out of the way gallery (Sepia International), that is not on street level, so there won’t be the walk-in traffic of the Chelsea galleries. Worth checking out, as I think it puts a lot of contemporary “fictional” photo work to shame. Hell, it puts a lot of stuff in other mediums outside photography to shame too.
I was familiar with her photos from Brazil, Cuba and Africa — many of which are formal portraits of practitioners of Candomblé, Santeria and the African roots of these religions. We were introduced at least 15 years ago by Robert Farris Thompson, the Yale professor and author. Her newer Haitian stuff of course touches on Voudoun, but there are lot of Jacmel carnival participant portraits too — these are astounding. And there are new African images that connect the dots between a lot of the New World cultures.
Most of all, the work is, in my opinion, not romantic — some of the stuff is hard, emotional, serious as death and as a result the beauty has depth. I’ve seen Phyllis work (in Brazil) and she affects a slightly ditzy casual demeanor — that disguises the fact that she knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. It helps her get these kids to stand against this wall while carnival rages all around them.
Or this man, comfortable in his housedress, holding a mirror and a paintbrush!
Or this participant in that Atam Masquerade in Nigeria?
There’s probably a debt to Irving Penn’s famous series of portraits of “exotic” peoples here — his pix of Peruvian Indians and Mudmen — taken in a portable formal “studio”. But somehow those seemed like an extension of the live Indian or the Venus Hottentot in the sideshow or in the Natural History Museums compared to this.
Besides, these subjects are in costume. They have intentionally transformed themselves into something exotic, charged, even frightening. Here is combined a long deep legacy of dress-up for masquerade, for carnival, for possession by the Gods combined with personal creativity and ingenuity. These are not people in their ordinary dress — they are intentionally fantastic, shocking, wild.
- David Byrne