When the photography exhibition “Phyllis Galembo: Maske” opened on Jan. 28 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, nobody expected the museum would close soon after due to COVID-19. Suddenly, the exhibition took on a new layer of meaning as the pandemic made face masks part of our national culture.
“Protective face masks aren’t just medical anymore,” said the photographer Phyllis Galembo. “We see on social media how they are becoming a part of fashion, of our cultural landscape, and ways that people can convey messages and reflect their own personality. For many people, creating and wearing masks feels like a way they can reclaim some personal power.”
Galembo has traveled around the world for over 30 years to photograph contemporary mask-making and masquerade events, ranging from traditional religious ceremonies to secular celebrations. Galembo’s photographs have garnered national and international critical acclaim. Through her lens, viewers can appreciate the physical character, costumes, and customs of African religious practices—and their appearances in the Caribbean and Mexico.
The masks and costumes captured in the near life-size photographs are made from interesting materials like leaves, grass, patterned fabrics, burlap sacks, full-bodied crocheted yarns, colored raffia, quills, and shells; found objects, plastic bags, and cardboard from the modern world also find their way into these masks. The images also explore the spiritual realms of masquerade cultures as many of the photographs reflect sacred rituals rather than non-religious celebrations.
“I like the way viewers can grasp the real stories behind each image,” Galembo said. “Every mask, costume, and fiber of material can represent so much to the people in these portraits. These are people who make masks and costumes that are very spiritually motivated.”
The museum responded to the connection between the mask-making traditions depicted in Galembo’s photographs and current events by making her show available online to people in quarantine at home. The show was also extended until Sept. 20 to allow more people to see the photography exhibition in person when the museum re-opens on June 3.
“What Phyllis Galembo’s exhibition images have in common with the face masks people are making for the pandemic [is] their vitality, power, and boldness of humanity,” says Irvin Lippman, executive director at Boca Raton Museum of Art. “Viewers can see in this exhibition how the tradition of masquerading has always been universal and timeless.”
When mask-making creativity took hold of the country, the museum’s education team also created new digital pathways and online activities for museumgoers of all ages, including mask-related activities for families and video gallery tours. The museum’s YouTube Channel, Instagram, and Facebook pages also feature new digital resources related to the exhibition and masks (#BocaMuseumatHome). These online resources will continue after the re-opening date to provide access to those who are not able to visit in person.
The Boca Raton Museum of Art will re-open on June 3 with free admission for all guests through September and new public hours of 11 am to 7 pm on Wednesday to Sunday (with early member mornings on Thursday to Saturday starting at 10 am). In addition, social distancing guidelines will be enforced, and masks will be required.