A few years ago, my dear friend and writer, Carole McDonnell, told me about the people of the Omo Valley in Africa. They are a small tribe removed from modern civilization that decorate themselves with their surroundings using plants, flowers, natural pigments, animal hides and tusks, and each others hands. I became fascinated with them and found a book by Hans Silvester that focused on them that went onto my Amazon wishlist and then sat there for years until a few days ago. Something made me finally buy it. I think I was afraid that it was going to go out of print soon as a lot of photography books often do, so I decided to buy it and I'm so very glad that I did as it's one that I see myself spending hours and hours with in the future.
"If you ask these young people for the meaning of their truly magnificent designs, which in our eyes are very reminiscent of contemporary art, they cannot tell you. They simply enjoy them, are happy to have made them, and are even happier to have them praised. But why and how the ideas come to them is beyond their ability to explain. One would really like to know more - our sense of reason demands an explanation - but they smile and say nothing, and their silence sends us back to our own void, our own culture with all its uncertainties."The other thing that struck me was the lack of being able to identify gender in the tribe. Unless you're looking at a picture where the chest or genitals are shown, you cannot distinguish if the person is a male or female, at least from the photos presented in this book. Males and females are just as likely to have gorgeous flowers adorning their heads as they are to have dry reeds adorning their heads. The face paint can be either elaborate or quite plain but striking on either sex. In the tribe, males most frequently paint males and females most frequently paint females, though occasionally the opposite sex will paint the other, and in any painting there can be a sense of sensuality as well when the breasts or genitals are painted. Truly a beautiful, beautiful group of people.
The sad part comes at the end of the author's text. As one can expect, the tribe is being put on tourist maps now. Tours are making stops in their villages and the tribe is now being paid for photographs of them and sadly the money they make often goes to buying alcohol or weapons which is just never a good thing. As the author states, there's a glooming cloud overhead with the feeling that the tribes days are numbered before it is forced to migrate the rest of the world and join the same fate of Native Americans and many other tribes across the world and live on reservations, fighting to survive. There are a few pictures in the book that just stood out and broke my heart with people looking so beautiful and holding an automatic rifle. It just didn't belong there.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I wish I wouldn't have waited so long to get it! It's one I'll revisit again and again and never tire of the beauty that it holds.