Call and Response: Africa to America / The Art of Nick Cave and Phyllis Galembo recently opened at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, South Carolina. The exhibition brings together the work of two American artists intrigued by the formation of cultural identity and individual experience within a society. Drawing inspiration from the rich ceremonial traditions and elaborate guises of African nations, Nick Cave and Phyllis Galembo create objects that are visually captivating and conceptually charged. Cave’s imaginative Soundsuits and Galembo’s photographic portraits of West African masqueraders prompt the viewer to regard the world in terms of connection and community.
Upon entering the Halsey, one is struck by the mystical presence of Cave’s Soundsuits. Cave, a former dancer and current Chair of the Fashion Design Department at the School of the Art institute of Chicago, combines his experience in modern dance with his expertise in fiber textiles to create his Soundsuits. The first soundsuit was constructed entirely of gathered twigs, resulting in a subtle rustling sound when worn; thus, the name. The kaleidoscopic costumes reference the ritualistic garments worn by Galembo’s subjects, the people of Africa whom she has spent decades photographing. Cave’s sculptures, anthropomorphic assemblages of materials such as dyed human hair, plastic buttons, beads, sisal, sequins, fabrics, feathers, and other natural ephemera, are layered with personal and cultural associations. The disparate materials are masterfully woven together by the artist, ornamental embellishments create undeniable tactile and visual appeal for the viewer; the soundsuits incite a collective sense of awe.
In the adjacent gallery, Phyllis Galembo’s photographic portraits chronicle masqueraders from various West African countries, including Benin, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. The masquerade is a meaningful mode of cultural expression for several African groups, and Galembo presents a straightforward observation of individuals within particular cultures. Galembo’s work is a field study on these regions, a modern documentation of their ancient ceremonial traditions. Disguised as animals, spirits, or ancestors, her subjects enact ancient legends and stories, but the artist captures them in stasis. Galembo, described as a “photographic hunter-gatherer” by writer Emma Reeves, incorporates her subjects’ natural surroundings in detailed compositions that highlight the garments, the accoutrements (i.e. a staff to connote authority), and the occasional glimpse of a bare, or sneakered, foot of a masquerader. Galembo elegantly achieves a personal encounter with a masked individual, and successfully conveys this engagement to the remote viewer.
Call and Response: Africa to America will remain on view at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art until June 26th. The exhibition is taking place during Spoleto Festival USA, an annual performing arts event held in Charleston, SC every spring. The Halsey’s sincere presentation of Cave’s soundsuits and Galembo’s photographs offer an exciting visual arts alternative to the citywide performing arts festival.