Monday, March 17, 2008

Catwalking in the Cradle of Mankind

Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa

by Hans Silvester
Thames & Hudson, April 2008
168 pages/hardcover/160 color photographs/$45.00

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

With photographs enchanting to behold, Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa by Hans Silvester is a sure selection for this spring’s required viewing list. Silvester, known for his protracted study of subjects, travels to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley a dozen times over four years for this new release. He infiltrates the fantastic body painting displays of two congenial tribes, the Surma and the Mursi. While this ancient African practice is uniquely noteworthy, the book also packs a universal message.

Out of the gate, Natural Fashion provides readers with stunning visuals of tribe members sporting wearable art crafted from every handy item found in the Valley’s organically rich environment. Several spreads into the book, it becomes evident the collection is rare; publishers tout these photographs as an unprecedented series. None of the shots are random. Silvester’s direction, especially with the children, is sublime. Unforced light mixes with the colors of weeds, clay, flowers and skin creating pigment perfection. Beyond the spectacle of their intricate blending with the land are unforgettable sets of primordial eyes peering into his lens.

The Surma are whimsical masters of flair as they quickly complete their stylish transformations. The Mursi are equally skillful with their adornments but are pegged as aggressive to outsiders, cleverly stealing cameras, watches and car antennas. Both groups have become resourceful in another manner: the nomads sell every possession to the increasing masses of gaping sightseers. They even forfeit their signature clay lip and earlobe plates in exchange for posing, about five for a dollar. Riches are spent on weapons and alcohol, necessities for coping with the region’s onslaught of war, climate change and social tragedy.

When exotic destinations are discovered, too often the result is a disgraceful exploitation where natives become captive exhibitions. In Natural Fashion, Silvester shows us everything we need to see. What is more, his expert images prompt a meditation with this focus: Buy this book and stay off the tour buses.

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