Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher have been devoted to documenting the most authentic indigenous elements of African culture, since they first met in Nairobi almost half a century ago.
Their quest to photograph at many African ceremonies and traditional rituals as they could, before those practices disappeared, led the two women to travel all around the region, often to remote areas where people still practised their pre-colonial cultures.
A marvellous sampling of those years is currently on display at the Tribal Gallery in Loresho. Entitled ‘Beauty Portrayed: 40 years of photography’, the exhibition features a fraction of their photographs taken in more than 40 African countries among 150 ethnic communities and includes thousands of photos and films taken of people whose cultural practices are infused with significant meaning and ancestral memories.
“What we found was that every element of beauty or artistry had a meaning behind it. For instance, you could look at a Maasai woman’s jewellery and know whether she was married, widowed or divorced,” Angela explained.
“The same was true with scarification,” she added, pointing to a Dinka elder whose forehead was scarred in curves shaped like the horns of his favourite ox.
“The man had been named after the ox, so the animal is his namesake. The scars signify how much he loves his ox,” she added.
Every image in the show at Tribal has a fascinating story to go with it. But not just because you may never have heard of the group represented by the photo, such as the Kroba from Ghana or the Pende people from the DR Congo or the Wodabbe people from Niger who have an annual Charm Dance in which the men dress up and wear alluring makeup and the young women get to choose the man they wish to wed.
What’s also fascinating about these two intrepid travellers is that they have never tired of moving out of most people’s comfort zones into new realms where the unknown is not a threat but rather, a pleasure for them to discover. What is equally amazing is the way they have managed to establish trust with all of these communities, so they have been able to attend their ceremonies and film or photograph them without losing the authenticity of the moment.
For instance, they wanted to document the practices of the Surma people who were based in a remote region of northern Ethiopia. So, they took a plane to Addis Ababa and then hired a mule train to travel up to that area. They rode the mules, 15 in number, all the way there and then asked their guide to come back for them after six weeks.
“As the guide didn’t have a watch or a calendar, he tied a rope with the six-week equivalent of knots and then untied a knot every day until the knots were done. Then he came for us,” Carol recalled, still amazed by the man’s ingenuity.
The most stunning feature of the Surma for Angela and Carol was the young women who prepared their body paint every day and covered their hair with beautiful flowers and stalks, shaped like ladies' hats worn at the Ascot’s in the UK.
But equally dazzling at the Tribal are the colourful costumes, made with raffia grass and millet stalks combined with matching wooden masks worn in Burkina Faso during vigorous dance ceremonies, that appeal to the powers of nature and the ancestors to bring the rains and successful harvests that the whole community could enjoy.
All of these delicious details are documented in their books, all of which but two are co-authored by the two photographers. The two that were not are Carol’s book on the Maasai and Angela’s book Africa Adorned.
They were in the works when the women first met, introduced by Angela’s brother. But as they rendezvoused at the African Heritage Pan African Gallery, it was the late Alan Donovan (who co-owned the gallery with Kenya’s second Vice President Joseph Murumbi), who proudly contended that he was the one to bring the two women together.
Whatever the case, Alan was an avid supporter of the women’s incredible work. What he understood was the passion that these women shared for their Pan-African project. It’s a project which they just put online in collaboration with Google as a permanent and free opportunity to see all of their photos, films, and stories at Africa online museum.org.
But as valuable as is their collaboration with Google, it’s the collab that Carol and Angela have shared for almost 50 years that’s the most remarkable of all.