“Call and response” is a musical term. Think of live concerts where the lead singer calls out a line and the audience responds in unison. Think of childhood camp songs, religious services, and sports events. Think of Africans coming to America as slaves and bringing their voices with them.
Call and Response, the latest exhibit at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in conjunction with Spoleto Festival USA, pairs the work of American artists Nick Cave and Phyllis Galembo. The exhibit is the first collaboration between these renowned artists, both of whom explore the contours of West African masquerade through their art.
Cave’s first Soundsuit was created in response to the Rodney King trials of 1992. As a black male, Cave wanted to create art reflecting the scary and seductive language used by the media in reference to King. With a background in dance and a degree in art, Cave was interested in merging the two disciplines of textiles and movement. Sitting on a park bench in Chicago, the powerful language of the trial weighed on his mind, and Cave began to gather twigs. He wanted to fashion the twigs into a sculptural object, but as he worked, he realized it could be worn. The twigs rubbed against each other, rustling when he moved, and the first Soundsuit was born. “I wanted to transform trash to treasure, to analyze and redefine the abundance of waste, to force the viewer to think about what we discard and elevate it to a level of beauty. That is the power of art,” Cave says.
The artist’s Soundsuits are made of brightly colored fabrics, elaborate embroidery, beadwork, raffia, and other materials. The suits disguise the face of the wearer, challenging the viewer to respond through their senses and think about assumptions of gender, race, and identity. In one suit, a collection of antique toy tops is attached around the head and shoulders of a vibrant flowered costume.
Twelve to 15 installation pieces have been created for the Halsey exhibit, as well as a performance video. Exhibiting with Phyllis Galembo will “bring the entire experience together,” Cave says, noting that the idea of masquerade as a response to cultural identity will provide a provocative thread to Galembo’s photographs.
Galembo’s portraits feature masqueraders from West Africa. For more than 20 years, Galembo has traveled alone with her “portable studio” to small villages and large cities, documenting costumes and culture. Her large-scale color photographs depict costumes worn by traditional priests, dancers, and voodoo practitioners. Her subjects’ faces are hidden behind a mask of inexpensive materials including paint, flowers, sticks, carved wood, leaves, and yarn.
The costumes in Galembo’s images are varied, ranging from colorful, geometric-striped bodysuits to more elaborate drapings of fabrics. The photographer is interested in the relationships between persona and human behavior, between ritual dress and spirituality. Galembo says there is masquerade in every culture. Costume and masquerade allow for “total transformation,” she says. Like Cave, who wants to transform trash to treasure, Galembo’s portraits illuminate the power of masquerade to make something beautiful and powerful from leaves, sticks, and mud.