Response to the opening of “Theater of Belief: Kings, Chiefs, and Women of Power”

Exotic is the first term that came to mind when I scanned the gallery at the just-opened exhibition “Theater of Belief: Kings, Chiefs, and Women of Power” at the Frankie G.Weems Gallery at Meredith College, featuring photographs by Phyllis Galembo. Then lots more words came tumbling indignified, noble, colorful, fascinating, beautiful, curious, amusing, ancient, modernin other words, this show is thought provoking and sensorially exciting.

The men and women in these portraits are covered in symbols of their culture from head to toe, and happily the labels help us interpret the meaning of the different symbols. The leopard skins, the fly whisks, the pieces of ivory, the hanging oversized hands, the beads, the head coveringsall ripe with mystery for us, but would presumably need no translation if the subject walked by his or her fellow Yoruba, Igbo or Beninese people.

One of my favorites, that encompasses perhaps all the adjectives mentioned above, was the portrait of the caretaker of the royal harem, whose assignments include settling disputes between the king’s wives and reporting on their behavior. And the Igbo woman who had received her chieftaincy title for success in business and philanthropy struck me as having a foot in both the old and new cultures of West Africa.

At one point I felt a bit envious that the West African culture was such a richer and more colorful one than ours. And then I wondered how many colorful, ritualistic things in our own culture we take for granted. In just a few moments, Zoe Starling and Hilary Kinlaw and I came up with all kinds of costumes/uniforms loaded with meaning here at home.

Scouts, Masons, Shriners, NFL, NBA, NHL players, Catholic priests/bishops/nuns are all colorful with their own accessories, status symbols and headdresses. And of course Native Americans when they are dressed for their rituals are dense with texture, color and meaning.

An exhibition like this one does what all art is inherently good atopening our eyes, hearts, minds and curiosity and causing a little rethinking. Don’t miss this bedazzling show that Meredith College has hosted for the Gregg in its Gaddy-Hamrick Art Center.

Now I can’t wait to get over to the NCSU African American Cultural Center Gallery to see the sister show, “Theater of Belief: Calling the Spirits: African Ritual and Masquerade.” I am betting on another cultural treasure trove with lots of breathtaking regalia.

–Miriam Sauls, FOG Board Member


Staff notes:

“Theater of Belief: Kings, Chiefs, and Women of Power” runs at Meredith College January 23 – March 23 at Frankie G. Weems Gallery at Meredith College. A joint exhibition, “Theater of Belief: Calling the Spirits: African Ritual and Masquerade” is at the NCSU African American Cultural through May 11, 2014.




Madam Juliana: The Omu of Issele-Oku, Phyllis Galembo, 1994
A successful Western Igbo businesswoman, Madam Juliana displays her coiffure with jewelry and beaded attachments. Her large beaded necklaces and wristlets and white horse-tail fly whisk are other signs of her prominent position among titled female chiefs in the community.

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