The Allure of Beastly Beings

The photographic journey of Phyllis Galembo captures the human fascination with disguise and the value of animal form in theatrical ritual

© Phyllis Galembo. Giraffes, Jacmel, Haiti, 1998.


Whether you open a book, gaze upon a masterpiece or attend a fashion show, the traces of animal-life can be unearthed. Throughout literature and the visual realms, metaphorical and symbolic fauna roam free.

Not only in the arts but on our bodies, animals appear again and again. Furs, leathers and feathers, or imitations thereof, have clothed people throughout history. More recently this has become a controversial matter. Reflecting on our ever-changing relationship with animalia, the publication Wild: Untamed Fashion offers an extensive look at fashion’s ongoing fascination. In particular, it reflects on how the ways that we incorporate creatures into our wardrobes invariably are signs “of changing social attitudes about human-animal and human-human relationships.”

Adorning with animal-based paraphernalia surely originated out of primal needs: sustenance and protection. However it also marked the channelling of animal qualities to the benefit of human social development.


© Phyllis Galembo. Man with dog, Jacmel, Haiti, 2013.


Take the dog as an example, to many it is a source of companionship to the extent of a familial bond. However, the dog was likely domesticated for its practical uses. Some primarily still look to the dog for the protection of livestock.

Indeed the use and value of an animal varies from place to place; therefore symbolic importance does as well. It could be anything from an element of a single creature to a hybrid of many. All are potential for great cultural significance. A shell , a horn, a skin or a monstrous amalgamation of all three, as exemplified by the Ogborone Devil’s from Sierra Leone.


© Phyllis Galembo. Ogborone (Devil) Masquerade, Mountain Cut, Sierra Leone, 2008.


One species may also encapsulate numerous qualities within a singular culture. In Ancient Egypt, the diety Sekhmet incarnate as a lioness was both an aggressor, and a healer. The crocodilian god Sobek was symbolic of power, likely due to the ferocity of its jaws. It was also an icon of protection and fertility. One can imagine this refers to its aquatic home in the Nile, the breadbasket of the region. In Ghana too, habitat and behaviour of the crocodile provides food for thought through local proverbs and textiles. We explored the animal symbolism of Egypt and Ghana in our previous articles Khaled Hafez on the Metaphoric Nature of Animals and Iconography and The Animal Guides of Ewe Kente.


© Phyllis Galembo. Mao Mao Alligator Devil, Sierra Leone, 2008.


Masking in West Africa is an effervescent burst of organic material that abounds with imagination and mystery. The creative genius at work frequently calls upon the natural world. The purpose of animals in this context is to convey messages. Some of these allegories are public, for instance the use of a leopard often means power, and this is widely known. Moreover a host of esoteric knowledge is reserved for initiates of the secret societies associated with masking. In some cases, the symbolic importance of an animal endures but the physical resemblance is almost unrecognisable.  The panther masquerade of Burkina Faso for example, is as stylised as it is vibrant. Only subtle undertones of the feline presence remain.


© Phyllis Galembo. Panther Masquerade, Samaga Village, Burkina Faso, 2006.


In our past project, Diptych, we presented mask cultures on the same creative plane as high fashion and the arts, juxtaposing the staggering visual prowess at play. This feast for the eyes heavily featured the iconic images of New York based photographer Phyllis Galembo.

Galembo’s oeuvre covers wide ground and her numerous publications attest this. For instance, the geographically disparate Dressing to Thrill: 100 Years of Halloween Costume and Masquerade published in 2002 and her more recent monograph Maske both deal with disguise yet from different perspectives.

Maske—to be republished by Aperture in the Spring of 2016—is an exploration of masking culture in Zambia, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Benin, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Haiti. It was through contact with the leaf masquerades of Nigeria in the mid 1980s that Galembo’s fascination for the practice, and her visual documentation thereof flourished. This organic apparel was the gateway into a world where nature becomes adornment. Ever the advocate for conceptual simplicity, the artist herself states that “dressing oneself in nature is as simple as it comes.”

The documentarian whose practice largely focuses on cultural phenomena, and in particular through portraiture has built up an extensive archive. Over the course of more than two decades, and through her repeated travels in western and central Africa, and Haiti she has observed how “disguise is constantly being reinvented and adapted. With masquerade, there are always new avenues to explore.”

Nature is a fountain of inspiration. The animal kingdom can be called on an abundance of uses in the world of masquerade. Some deal with notions of the feminine, others the masculine. Some are acts of joy and celebration while others are deeply religious. For every facet of the human experience there is an animal manifestation.

Looking at the ongoing body of images produced by Galembo, we return to her practice and highlight some of her most captivating portraits exemplifying the range of animals incarnate in masquerade practices belonging to peoples of lands across the west African continent and in the Caribbean.


Dodo Boy’s Masquerade

© Phyllis Galembo. Elephant and Bat, Dodo Masquerade, Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, 2009.


Self expression and lessons of responsibility are at the heart of the Dodo boys’ masquerade found in Burkina Faso. Taking place during Ramadan, the event is almost entirely organised by the masqueraders–children–themselves. Bathed in moonlight, the pantomimed animals from Mossi folklore emerge. Lions terrify and monkeys amuse while the power of the elephant remains indisputable. Wildlife remains firmly rooted in the tradition but the whimsical cardboard masks take on new forms. Technology, pop iconography and fantasy can all be incorporated. During this rather playful event, the performers–mainly Muslim children and teens–go about revelling in dance and song whilst soliciting gifts from the community.


Sierra Devils

© Phyllis Galembo. Water Buffalo Devil, Freetown, Sierra Leone 2008.


An epitome of competitive masculinity, the secretive hunting societies of Sierra Leone consider brotherhood an important notion. During festivities these social clubs take to the streets of Freetown led by an ancestral figurehead known as a ‘devil’.  A grotesque figure, the devil commands respect and obedience behind its shroud of pelts, horns, cowrie shells, quills and even trophy mounts. Materials are a mix of local and foreign imports: members that return to Sierra Leone will do so with bigger and better additions to their devils in order to one-up the competition. Physical animal power is a display of dominance within hunting societies. The heads of lions, leopards and other large fauna sit atop only the most influential devils.



© Phyllis Galembo. Ko S’Ogbon L’Ate (You Cant Buy Wisdom at the Market), Gelede Masquerade, Agonli-Houegbo Village, Benin 2006.


Gelede is the Yoruban celebration of the feminine force known as the Aje or ‘The Mothers’ who are capable of assuming animal form. The festivities are an effort to placate this spiritual force. Curiously the performers are always men, the masked figures however are fashioned with female characteristics. Gelede costumery is a composite of wooden masks, animal carvings and fabrics. Galembo herself describes these as “different words in a sentence.” Ensembles may tell stories that emphasise harmony or offer a satirical approach to everyday life. On such leitmotif is ‘You can’t buy wisdom at the market’, which expresses that enlightenment cannot be bought. In physical form, the presence of the carved leopard–a being of kingly spiritual power–attached in a mishmash fashion suggests this. Bird imagery is also symbolically charged. The appearance of a hornbill is haunted with the underlying threat of death by witchcraft.



© Phyllis Galembo. Djidjimbo Safou Ognon Warrior, Apprentice Tailor, Egungun Masquerade, Adandokpodji Village, Benin, 2006.


Egungun is the Yoruba worship of ancestor spirits, individually or collectively. Processions emerge from the woodland throughout funerals and festivals. They are conduits from which the spirit world delegates social rules and offers guidance, justice and entertainment. They fall within four classes and two major categories – the gentle Jeje and the wild Ijanjuku. The animal presence can be much more subtle in the case of the Egungun as their appearance differs greatly between regions. The Egungun Erin refers to the importance and strength of the elephant though does not visually resemble one. In Benin, Egungun are often comprised of fabric panels featuring appliquéd animals that represent Yoruba, Fon or Vodun power symbols. Animal hide is another key material; sometimes its use is far more overt than others.



© Phyllis Galembo. Man with banjo and snakes, Jacmel, Haiti, 2013.


Kanaval in Jacmel, Haiti, is all about fun and humour sprinkled with political satire depending on current events. Papier mache is at the heart of Jacmel’s craft. With over 200 artisans in the field, Jacmel is brimming with all manner of creatures from reality to mythology. Wildlife from the African continent floods the streets while horns and fur decorate the menacing zombie masqueraders. Animals are not only recreated but some, such as snakes, are participants. This is an extension of the adoration for the Great Serpent deities that originated in Benin, the cradle of Vodun.

Phyllis Galembo (b. 1952) was born in New York and lives in New York City.  She graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1977 and has been a professor in the Fine Arts Department of SUNY Albany since 1978. Galembo’s photographs are included in numerous public and private collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library.  Her work has appeared in Tar Magazine, Damn Magazine, Photograph and Harpers. Galembo has appeared on CNN, NPR Radio and NBC Today.

Written by Keiron LeVine

All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.

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