From birth to death: an archive of vanishing African rituals seeks a home

Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher have spent more than four decades traveling across Africa photographing ceremonies and rituals that are rapidly vanishing in the modern world. Now they are seeking an African home for their archive – comprising more than a million images. They launched their book “African Twilight” which documents rapidly vanishing rituals across the continent on Sunday (March 03).

MLOLONGO, KENYA (MARCH 03, 2019) (REUTERS) – Whirling masked spirits clad in raffia and laughing children daubed with clay dance across the pages of “African Twilight”, the latest book by two photographers documenting rapidly vanishing rituals across the continent.

Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher have traversed 44 of Africa’s 54 countries over four decades, documenting rituals used to mark milestones such as birth, death, and courtship, the graduation of girl to woman or the moment a warrior becomes a respected elder.

Now their archive – comprising more than a million images, hundreds of artefacts and field diaries, and thousands of hours of video – is looking for a home.

They want the collection to go to a university in Africa or some other venue that will guarantee access to African artists, historians and researchers.

“A bigger ambition is really to give back something that is unique now because this record of Africa won’t be taken again, it can’t be taken again 40 percent of it is already lost,” said Fisher, An Australian at their book launch in Nairobi on Sunday.

Heat lightning flashed across the sky as models, acrobats and dancers showcased traditional music and textiles at the event at Africa Heritage House, a private museum. But conflict, climate change, and the spread of technology are erasing or transforming many such customs.

In South Sudan, decades of war has devastated traditional Dinka culture, said Beckwith, an American. Few now can make the beaded corsets whose patterns and colours would tell you the life story of its wearer.

In Ethiopia, desertification and land grabs are pushing nomads south into farming lands or towns. Samburu elders in Kenya worry that youngsters enamoured of cell phones and city life no longer care for time-consuming social ceremonies and the obligations they entail.

“The natural world takes forth, takes over, you know that in Niger, the desert is advancing at a very fast rate and its pushing the nomad population to agricultural areas where they are unwelcome, so they will either be forced to settle or be forced to move into areas that are alien to them and they are losing their tradition in struggle for survival,” said Beckwith.

“It’s really important for change to happen that when change can happen in a way that works without you losing your identity, you still can be Maasai, you still can be into the twenty first century, you can go run the marathon in New York you can do whatever you want to,” added Fisher.

Encouraged by conservationists, one Maser community in Kenya changed from lion-hunting to athletic games as a way of proving male prowess, she said. The Wodaabe people in Niger still stage male beauty pageants famed for their use of make-up and grimaces.

The photographers’ friend Nike Okundaye, a Nigerian chief and textile artist, is trying to revive the laborious methods for dying patterned indigo clothes, a tradition handed down from her great-great-grandmother.

Women once used the cloth – Nigeria’s “colour of love”, Okundaye says – to flaunt matrimonial harmony. But the months-long process to produce a piece makes it too expensive for most consumers, so now her work hangs in Washington’s Smithsonian Museum and is pictured in the pages of Beckwith and Fishers’ books. Okundaye has been working with them since 1967,

“The textile is dying now and my own is to revive it and see whether one day the government will try to preserve it for us, so the young generation coming will be able to have the story on their textile,” she said.

Associated Links

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