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Face Masks: Many Reclaim their Power

African Masks Facts by Allison Mann


Akata Dance Masqueraders, by Phyllis Galembo. Ogoja, Nigeria, (2004), Ilfochrome


Rihanna, Hailey Bieber, Vanessa Hudgens, Jay-Z, are just a few familiar names that we have seen rocking the now publicly preferred, face mask in past years for no functional purpose other than making a fashion statement. For years, we have seen celebrities and fashion icons jam out ~in style~ at Coachella and on the streets. Topping off their look with a face mask was certainly unexpected, but it did set a precedent for future Coachella seasons and fashion weeks. It was a trend that was always a head-turner and certainly did not spread into the wardrobes of non-celebs and Instagram influencers… until now.

Of course, in a time where we are remaining socially distant while still trying to lead semi-normal lives, face masks are imperative. At least we fashion folk have some inspo on how to make these necessary daily add-ons not cramp our style thanks to our fellow celebs who have been sporting this look for years! But, then again, how did this trend emerge in the first place if it was purely intended not for functionality, but aesthetic purposes? We’ve been seeing celebrities publicly flex their face coverings since before 2014. Portrait photographer Phyllis Galembo stated that “Protective face masks aren’t just medical anymore, we can see on social media how they are becoming a part of fashion, of our cultural landscape. Ways that people can convey messages and reflect their personality,” We want to know now, where does this trend originate from? Now that people everywhere are wearing face masks in public spaces (whether we are doing so reluctantly or not), we want to make it chic, and get to know its roots a little better.

Phyllis Galembo has created an exhibition, Maske, that combines art, fashion, and photography in a beautiful hybrid centered around the idea and origin of face masks in traditional African cultures. Unfortunately, the Boca Raton Museum of Art in which her creation had been presented had to temporarily close its doors. To combat this, Galembo has birthed a virtual tour for her fellow art fanatics to enjoy from the comfort of their own homes while social distancing. “For many people all over the world now, creating and wearing masks feels like a way they can reclaim some personal power,” she states. From Maske, people everywhere can draw inspiration, grow creatively and culturally, and develop a new appreciation for African cultural traditions, all whilst staying safe during a pandemic and taking optimal precautionary measures for safety. The objective of this inspiring and moving exhibition is to display that the now trending face mask had its dawning in traditional African Masquerade cultures. They were utilized in ceremonies and celebrations that were both religious and secular in countries such as Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, and Sierra Leone. With intricate attention to detail, energetic and uplifting color stories, meticulously unique patterns, and exaggerated faces that are equally mesmerizing and frightening, these face masks truly began as an expressionist art form.

Materials used to make African masks

The masks exhibited in these photos are made from an interesting combination of surprising materials - leaves, grass, patterned fabrics, burlap sacks, full-bodied crocheted yarns, colored raffia, quills, shells, and even lizard excrement. The modern world finds its way into these masks with the usage of plastic bags, cardboard, and found objects.

The creativity and power that these striking African masks exemplify only support the idea of many people feeling as if they are reclaiming power by creating and wearing their own face masks. Drawing inspiration from diverse cultures can broaden our horizons to endless possibilities for fashion and art, and Maske has done exactly that. It gives off the feeling that incorporating this idea into American culture is not such an outlandish concept, given that mask-wearing is now a worldwide norm! Especially during a time where we are remaining physically distant from each other, art is eternally a universal language that brings us a sense of togetherness and unity.

Otoghe-Toghe, by Phyllis Galembo. Aromgba Village, Nigeria, (2005), Ilfochrome



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