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From the muddy banks of the Omo River on Ethiopia’s border with Kenya, and what is today South Sudan, dark and slender figures bedecked in accessories and covered in impressive body paint can be seen in plain sight. Wrapped in pieces of branches, ripe fruits and fresh or dried bean pods, their bodies are virtually camouflaged in the surrounding scrub in a striking act of mimicry.
Those who visit the astonishing exhibition, ‘As Fotografias do Vale do Rio Omo’, on display until 25 August at Parque do Ibirapuera’s Museu Afro Brasil, will feel as if they’ve been whisked off to virgin lands inhabited by beings every bit as enchanting as those created by director James Cameron for the fantasy epic, Avatar (2009).
The exhibition consists of 63 large images of natives from the Surma and Mursi groups engaged in ancestral rites that date back many millennia, though they probably don’t go back quite as far as man’s presence in the region, where remains have been found of humans who lived there as long as 250,000 years ago.
|Tribal children are involved in the art from the outset|
In order to bring their all-natural ensembles together, the resourceful locals gather a hodgepodge of branches, fruits, bean pods and bird feathers to adorn their inimitable costumes, the creativity of which may well have caused a frisson of envy among designers from Milan and New York when the photographs first appeared in the book Ethiopia: Peoples of the Omo Valley, produced by the British publisher Harry N. Abrams, in 2007.
‘These body paintings are completely freeform and as such they are never repeated’, explains the German photographer Hans Silvester, 74, in the introductory text to the exhibition. ‘It’s not a figurative system. Each one is extraordinarily new. The techniques and skills involved in the decoration, in the infinite variations, are learned when they are still very young, when mothers paint their babies.’
Nevertheless, Silvester – who has amassed a photographic archive of people in other remote landscapes including Peru, India and Greece – thinks the young people are the most enthusiastic. ‘They have so much imagination, they don’t need outside inspiration,’ he points out. ‘They’ve never made the same decoration twice – there is no repetition.’
|A child wearing the elaborate tribal face decoration|
Very few of the tribes have access to mirrors, and so the paintings only take on meaning in the eyes of their beholders. ‘When I take these pictures, I never show them the photographs, because if they were to see these pictures, they would change the way they make the decorations’, Silvester writes. ‘A photo would have the same effect as a mirror, so the decorations wouldn’t be as good.’
When seen in the context of a conventional gallery, Silvester’s photographs immediately cast light on the contradictions between ethnological documentation and art. This issue is further intensified by the imposing presence of other works in the museum’s collection – in particular the Work and Slavery section, which includes illustrations by German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas. The late artist was a master at depicting human diversity, and his portrayal of the many African ethnicities brought to Brazil in the 19th century include the Cabinda and Mina peoples of Angola, who also practiced body painting.
|The Omo River people blend into their environment|
Sadly, the vivacity in the Omo Valley peoples’ work brings on an inevitable sense of melancholy in those who are aware of the region’s problems – many tribes go to war because of disputes over grazing lands for their herds of goat. A further, arguably inevitable issue is the population’s increasing proximity to large cities and outside visitors, which may in part be due to the quantity of Silvester’s portraits online. Acclaimed for their talents, some tribes have already been co-opted by the tourism industry, their work sought out by avid amateur photographers keen to snap up souvenir shots to post on their Flickr and Instagram pages.
‘And so they pull up in their 4x4s, around 10am, and locals are ready to greet them, showing off their accessories and painted bodies for the occasion. This somewhat surreal show goes on until midday when the tourists head off and the “performers” are paid in local money… Money which immediately gets spent on alcohol or arms – two highly-prized commodities’, writes Silvester, adding depressingly but perhaps presciently, ‘It all seems destined for tragedy.’