Mystical portraits of Mexican mask culture

Mystical portraits of Mexican mask culture
Contemporary traditions — In her new book Mexico Masks Rituals, Phyllis Galembo photographs the captivating art made exclusively for ritual.

For American photographer Phyllis Galembo, masquerades are a continuous source of inspiration. Since 1985, she has travelled around Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean to take vibrant portraits of those who don the mask, capturing the captivating creativity of art made exclusively for ritual.

Her first encounter with the masquerade in Mexico occurred back in the late 1970s, as a tourist on the Riviera Maya. It was a moment that stayed with her over the years, and eventually drew her back, resulting in a series of portraits collected in the stunning new book Mexico Masks Rituals (Radius Books/D.A.P).

“Mexico is such a welcoming place,” Galembo says. “The people are so open. The creativity is amazing. There’s something so poignant in what the people do. This is not inexpensive. I keep thinking I am done – then every time I see something different. It’s the little details. That’s why I like making big prints. Every inch of some of these things is filled with a lot of care, love and craziness.”

Deer and Bull, Semana Santa 2012

The precision, innovation and imagination of the masquerade make each of Galembo’s portraits unique. “I like to work on my own,” she says. “I always travel with a local person and I don’t bring people with me. I have a minimal setup and I need to be able to focus what I am doing. Half the fun is finding different things.”

“Sometimes we will go somewhere very busy so I will find a place off to the side and set up there. Sometimes the people hanging out will see someone and say, ‘Get that one!’ and they’ll help me.  The greatest surprise is finding things aren’t what you think they will be.”

Galembo’s dedication has made her a pilgrim of sorts, searching out masquerades deeply entrenched in a rich range of political, artistic, social and religious traditions, mythology, and iconography.

Negrito with Lacquered Mask and Ribbons, Corupo 2017

In her portraits, we see a history of Mexico written in ritual and costume, a story of the intersections between native cultures, enslaved Africans, and Catholic imperialists that continues to subtly reinvent itself in the 21st century. Some have unexpected features, like a Sweeper donning a Michael Jackson mask.

“I love the mix between the contemporary and the traditional,” Galembo says. “I’m not looking for what I think the mask should look like, I like to document what it is and look at it later. I don’t turn down anyone willing to be photographed.” 

“I’m amazed that people are so inspired to do this and do it full on. They are 100 per cent into what they’re doing. For a lot of people, it’s also about community. These are different communities and none of them are really alike. I have been fortunate to be able to find these things. Mexico is amazing.”

Catrina, Axtla Jacaraondosos Group, All Saints’ Day 2016

Chinelo with Wire Mesh Mask, Chilapa 2016

Danza de los Quetzales, Quetzal, Xiutetelco 2015

Family in Maguey Masks 2016

Guapo del Paraje, Handsome One 2017

Negrito with Lacquered Mask and Ribbons, Corupo 2017

Reyna, Queen of the Santiagos 2017

Sweeper with Michael Jackson Mask 2016

Phyllis Galembo: Mexico, Masks & Rituals will launch with a book signing and slide show at Howl! Happening in New York on May 30, 2019.

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