Art

An online African museum coming soon

Life-Picture-2

Carol Beckwith (left) and Angela Fisher. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • The online museum will be launched in 2021 sometime before June, says Carol who is taking a break in Kenya until next month.
  • Carol says setting up the online museum is by no means the culmination of their photographic careers.
  • Nonetheless, the title of their latest book, African Twilight suggests their photographing indigenous cultures which have retained their rituals and traditions, relatively untouched by modernity and Western culture, may soon be coming to an end.

Photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher first met right here in Nairobi at the African Heritage Pan African Gallery more than 40 years ago.

Both artists, one from America, the other from Australia, were equally adventurous, ambitious, and highly resourceful women. Both were also women who loved Africa and set their sights on working here, particularly with less-known African communities. So it didn’t take long for them to decide to join forces and pursue their mutual interests together.

Now, 45 years and 17 best-selling coffee table-top books later, the two have finally started to put their life work online.

“We were actually on a book tour in Germany, speaking about our latest book, African Twilight [which they launched in Kenya at African Heritage House just a year ago] when one professor came up and asked if we were interested in creating an African online museum that featured our photographs, videos and books,” says Carol who is back in Kenya on holiday as is Angela.

They realised the time was ripe for them to pursue the idea.

“We didn’t get funding from any specific source, but the professor did fund raising and so did we,” says Carol who has been working non-stop with Angela this past year sorting through their half-a-million images and thousand hours of short videos, all focused on the ceremonies and rituals as well as the sheer beauty of remote African cultures.

“Our work has taken us to 47 African countries, to 150 ethnic groups over the past 45 years, so we clearly have a lot of material to cover,” she adds.

Plus, she says their museum will feature 200 of their detailed, illustrated journals which they kept on their journeys to remote villages and which will help them put detailed captions on all their images that go online.

The online museum will be launched in 2021 sometime before June, says Carol who is taking a break in Kenya until next month. Then she and Angela will get back to London where they share a house.

“I stay on the bottom floor while Angela lives on the top one, and our studio is on the middle floor,” she explains.

Carol says setting up the online museum is by no means the culmination of their photographic careers. Nonetheless, the title of their latest book, African Twilight suggests their photographing indigenous cultures which have retained their rituals and traditions, relatively untouched by modernity and Western culture, may soon be coming to an end.

“Already at least 40 percent of the ceremonies that we photographed have disappeared,” says Carol who feels as does the professor that their museum can serve as an invaluable educational resource for future generations to see what pre-colonial African cultures looked like.

Plus, she says their work reveals a great deal about the values that were and, in some cases, still are integral to each communities’ culture.

We asked Carol how she felt about the disappearance of so much of what she and Angela had documented.

She admitted that she has loved her life work and embraced the challenge of identifying and somehow reaching peoples who were way outside the mainstream of what is generally known about Africa. Fulfilling that challenge and getting to know remarkable people, most of whom had never met white people (leave alone white women) before, has been thrilling for both women.

But in a sense, Carol and Angela were pioneers whose books have exposed these marginalised peoples to the wider world. That is likely to change the whole cultural dynamics of their lives.

Carol recalls meeting one Samburu elder who requested them specifically to photograph one traditional rite of passage that only took place once every 14 years. “He told us he knew that year was likely to be the last time the ceremony was held. He understood the importance of having a record of the event so future generations of Samburu youth could learn about their culture,” she adds.

Carol had already produced two coffee table-top books before beginning work with Angela, one entitled Maasai, the other Nomads of Niger which was all about the beautiful Wodaabe people. Angela’s one solo book is Africa Adorned. But together the two have taken their photos, videos, and books all over the world. And everywhere they have gone, it is not only their images that impress. It’s also their storytelling that intrigues people like the professor and inspires audiences to want to learn more about Africa.