Thursday, April 25, 2013

Natural Fashon by Hans Silvester

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.

 This book is gorgeous as are the people that are it's focus. It's a book of few words and many photos. Silvester limited the text to just six pages at the beginning of the book giving a brief description of the tribe, how they decorate themselves and the future that awaits them. Following that we're graced with many absolutely breathtaking pictures of people adorned with gorgeous paints, native flowers as headdresses and body coverings and a general sense of a people who are truly in sync with the nature that surrounds them.

There were a few things that struck me as I read the introduction and then perused the book. First and foremost, the lack of meaning behind the decorating of their bodies. As westerners, we so often look for meaning in EVERYTHING. We see a tribe like this and instantly want to know "what does it MEAN?" We assume it must have a religious meaning or a folklore tradition or be some type of warpaint or family identification or ritual type thing. And my heart smiled when the author said that there is no meaning for them behind it.
"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.


Jeane said...

This looks ever so fantastic. I love the few photos you shared. It is so sad to think how exposure to the modern world will change them, probably irreversibly.

DesLily said...

the photo's are gorgeous! What a shame to bring them into the "modern world" where money is everything and one has to have it at any cost..and then have them introduced to weapons and alchohol...I myself would much prefer to go through life "not knowing" the horror's of it all. Nearing the end of my life Ignorance is Bliss and it's not wrong to want to live that way.