Benin is a small country in West Africa, which, despite it’s large Christian and Muslim community, is home to a number of indigenous religions. Most notable of these religions is Voodoo, which was founded as an official religion under the title of Vodun in 1989, in the Beninese town of Ouidah. Many of the native peoples also practise Orisha beliefs from the religion of Yorùbá, which, amid a multi-faceted belief system, suggests that humans will eventually spiritually conjoin with the Yorùbá God, Olódùmarè.
These religions hold sacramental costume – masks, in particular – in extremely high regard, believing that through taking up traditional attire, priests and priestesses are able to transform themselves into religious beings. Each representing a different spirit, these garments are worn at Voodoo festivals and ceremonies.
A self-confessed costume obsessive, it seems only fitting that Long Island-raised photographer, Phyllis Galembo, eventually found herself in Benin. Since her first excursion to Nigeria in 1985 to photograph similar religious costume, she has spent the following decades delving into the culturally thriving carnivals and festivals of Haiti and Africa, documenting the outrageously oversized and richly embellished native garments.
These photographs are taken in two Beninese towns: Egungun and Belede. In each town she shoots a single film of only 12 frames and takes her chances without a backward glance. Considering the awe-inspiring nature of the full attire, it’s safe to say that bigger risks have been taken.