The most straightforward interpretation of these photographs is to see them as simple facts, as evidence of the diverse social and cultural traditions of particular peoples, brought back from afar for our education. In the larger context of rituals, festivals and ceremonies, they show how different groups have approached common human questions of the power of spirituality, the battle of good and evil, and our interconnected relationship to the natural/animal world. As such, these masquerade costumes represent a form of shared experience, even if they seem foreign and even perplexing to our Western eyes.
If we were to take these images out of this obvious anthropological context and place them amidst pictures of haute couture fashion, I think they would take on a different set of meanings; the line between fashion and costume is altogether blurry wherever you live. These costumes were creatively made from a dizzying variety of materials, from shredded bags to intricately woven cloth, with adornments of antlers, feathers, and exaggerated painted headpieces; colors and textures have been carefully placed together for maximum impact. The skill on display is impressive, and the results are often overtly theatrical, the costumes an integral part of a larger cultural framework of story telling and myth making. Like any genre of fashion, they allow the wearer to inhabit an alternate personality, or to symbolize some facet of life applicable to all, while highlighting beauty in its many forms.
Galembo’s photographs are of course more than deadpan images of costumes; they are portraits of individuals, not unlike Irving Penn’s portraits of Moroccan guedras or mudmen from New Guinea, or even his images of rock groups, Hell’s Angels, and small tradesmen. In each case, we see a formal portrait against a non-descript background, where the attire of the subject informs our understanding of who they are and what they believe. Galembo’s portraits are full of respect and genuine curiosity, taken with a sense of honor and trust, rather than an exploitative search for the extremes of wild and weird.
All in, I think these photographs are quite a bit more powerful than just an anthropological catalogue. They merge the documentary and the artistic in complementary ways, allowing the viewer to get beyond the vivid colors and patterns to more durable levels of understanding and empathy.