Phyllis Galembo’s photos tread into nervy territory: as vibrant and fashionable as a Vogue cover while depicting the rituals and celebrations of remote and often impoverished tribal cultures in Mexico, the Caribbean, and West Africa. Since the 1980s, she has been traveling to remote locales to document festivals based on masquerade — the use of masks, costumes, and disguises to reenact mythic bouts and religious rituals. Her fans gush over her trademark mix of art meets anthropology. But Margaret Mead she is not. She’s not out to seek the meaning of any particular festival or tradition. Instead, she fixes her rather stylish gaze on the shared bliss of celebrations enabled by everything from traditional drums and animal skins to dollar-store tinsel and body paint. What she longs to capture is the ecstasy of temporarily losing one’s individual identity in the service of tribal pageantry and cultural customs.
“What I want to do most of all is document how people can live a tolerable life under harsh conditions,” Galembo has said. “As an artistic onlooker, I am fascinated by all the beauty that survives in the very poorest slums on our planet.”
In her latest monograph, she turns her attention to Mexico, a country that recognizes more than 50 tribal languages, where more than 25 million people self-identify as indigenous. Outside of the major cities, much of small-town Mexico still steps to the beat of a communal calendar, ostensibly celebrating Catholic festivities while clothed in the pre-Hispanic masks and costumes of mestizo and indigenous popular culture. (For a local analogy, think of the Pueblos’ feast days.) The photographs in Mexico, Masks | Rituals are culled from two decades of visits to rural Mexico, ranging from the territory of the Yaquis in the Sonoran Desert borderlands to the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, where indigenous culture and language still predominate in small villages.
At nearly 200 pages, this large-format photo book covers a lot of small-town rituals that few Mexicans may be aware of. In Zacatecas, in the remote Juchipila Canyon, Galembo’s camera follows the summer festival of Santiago (St. James) as local residents reenact a bloody 1540 rebellion of Caxcan warriors against Spanish conquistadors, all while wearing masks carved from walnut, wigs crafted out of cows’ tails, vibrant serapes, and leather aprons. In the Huasteca indigenous communities of northeastern Mexico, she witnesses Xantolo, the localized Day of the Dead festivities, where public rituals find much of the town masked as characters of the afterlife: skeletal figures, demons, and personifications of death. Women often dress as men and vice versa, while the dancers are led by El Cole, a figure whose mask is made of turtle shells and coatimundi pelts, all the better to illuminate his relationship with animal spirits. Despite the presence of serenading violins and guitars, the dancers made clear to Galembo that it’s far more than a party. “It’s not just dancing — you’re playing with death,” said one participant.
What is immediately clear from her photos is that however storied the missionary Christian origins of these rites may be, their expression is unabashedly indigenous, the product of centuries of local culture bending European Christianity to Mexican mestizo reality. Consider her section on the Purépecha people of Michoacán in west-central Mexico. Hundreds of years ago, Spanish priests commissioned these dances as a kinetic method of teaching biblical lore to the locals. But their lasting legacy is pure syncretic hodgepodge. The three wise men have transmogrified into a troupe of dozens of viejitos (the old ones), all wearing handmade masks of old men, festooned in ribbons, shawls, and lace, as they dance stooped over in the staged pains of old age while nonetheless making randy flirtations with women in the audience. Joseph now has a band of followers called the cúrpites (the gatherers), young single men chosen for their association with virginity. While Mary has an entourage as well — men dressed in outlandish wigs and exaggerated Purépecha women’s attire, covered in sequins and fertility-denoting feathers. Some call this folk Catholicism; others see a thinly veiled worship of Huehuetéotl, the Purépecha god of the elderly. The result, as seen through Galembo’s lens, is a communal outpouring by turns ancient and jocular, eternal and ridiculous.
In these static portraits of indigenous and mestizo Mexican dancers garbed to the nines in ceremonial dress, it’s impossible not to think of Edward Curtis, the photographer of the American West whose defining early-20th-century portraits of American Indians were intended as a visual anthropology of Native peoples, who at the time were widely believed to be a dying race. In place of Curtis’ romanticism playing to a post-frontier audience hungry for the myth of the “noble savage,” Galembo wraps her subjects in a gauzy glamour, for a contemporary audience that desires worldliness, sophistication, and multicultural allegiances without miring themselves in controversial social issues. If there’s a more complex morality on display here, it may come from the photos’ often overt suggestion that the ritual invocation of local custom may provide an enduring enchantment and ravishment, impervious to trends or zeitgeists.
As Instagram-friendly as all these celebratory masks seem, Galembo’s book is quick to remind us that these communal gatherings are, in fact, the opposite of what might be called, in the United States or Europe, a spectacle. There is little divide between performers and audiences, as both use the festival as a chance to viscerally belong to a common past. As Sergio Rodríguez-Blanco, a Mexican professor of photography, writes in the book’s introduction, “Participants in the rites which generally coincide with Roman Catholic festivities, in dances and chants, wearing masks and costumes, stop existing as themselves and morph into an ancestor, into a deity. Ritual object and corporeal body become one, and catapult to a dimension beyond time or history. They revisit the myth in order to invoke their communal origin, in order to recover — for an instant — the radiance of original time.” It’s a roundabout, academic version of a more popular phrase used to describe small-town Mexico’s embrace of its ancestors: En México, la muerte es cultura viva. In Mexico, death is a living culture. ◀
Mexico, Masks | Rituals by Phyllis Galembo and George Otis, Radius Books, 196 pages, $45