Recently I read the book Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa by Hans Silvester.
Actually, there wasn’t much to read, it was more a visual exploration of the Surma and Mursi tribes of East Africa. I am not sure how to feel about the book. As much as I would like to say that it was a great book, I think it is just an exploitation of culture. I recognize that this culture is special and unknown to many Americans, but what makes it so artistic and fashionable? It is the everyday lifestyles and traditions of people in the Omo valley. The author says that Kenya and Sudan are two of the “wildest” places in in Africa. Really? Wild? So, because they have been able to hold on to their original traditions and heritage, they are wild? Because they think of the body as a temple and adorn it as such, rather than glorifying it as a sex symbol, they are wild? One thing he was right about is that their way of living is threatened by conflict and tourism. They know that their era and days of independence is coming to an end. I believe that Eurocentricity will find its way to their lands if it hasn’t already.
Moreover, Hans, deficient of a definition of what he means by wild, I have to assume that he was referring to the manners and actions that he photographed the people. There are pictures of them in the nude, bodies draped in leaves, painted with the excretions of plants and berries, and mud. They live from the land, taking advantage of the elements that surround them. Is this what you mean by wild?
Playing devil’s advocate and I do mean devil’s advocate, I can appreciate that he visually recorded a culture that may be lost. Without record, the civilization will be lost forever. However, I’m sure it doesn’t have to be lost if it weren’t for people exploiting it, and trying to steal the resources of the land. So overall I repeat, it doesn’t have to be lost, but I am sure covetous explorers will attempt to steal it. What Hans does is tell a pictorial story of a tribe whose culture is about to be raped. The idea of “African art” fascinates me because it’s only categorized this way because it has become something “special” in the West because they have stolen the idea of it. It is just people’s everyday traditions!
As a female who sports ethnic attire, I am too, categorized as Afrocentric, having the inclination to wear things that speak more to my roots. This is who I am, nothing special! It’s what I feel in my spirit. I don’t do it for fashion purposes or to be recognized. I wake up feeling like a part of me has been lost, stolen, and naturally my spirit try’s to find what vanished from my heritage generations ago. So when I wear mud or kenti cloth, paint my face with black and white dots just to have dinner, it’s just me being what I was meant to be. No, I do not want to be a model for it. One thing, I want children to know that there was a culture before this Eurocentric culture that we live every day. At the rate of the decline of the American education system, we cannot rely on it to teach our children who they are and where they come from. That’s my goal. I just couldn’t enjoy this book because I’ve already seen these pictures in my dreams. Please understand that this is only truth. I travel to many different countries in my dreams. Ethiopia, Sudan, & Kenya were among them.
Peace & Love,
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Check out another article I wrote on African identity.
Although I am rethinking my usage of the word “African” because of its historical origins, we refer to the continent as Africa. The traditions are not so much African, they are indigenous and different depending upon what country on the continent you are visiting. Ethiopian traditions are different from those of Nigeria. Similar in some ways, but different. We have to be careful in grouping them so freely. Since African American ancestors may have come from anywhere on the continent (we do possess some idea of where explorers got slaves), it has become typical to define Africa as one. That is dangerous. When you do this, it just means that you are listening to one story, and that one story that you heard is tainted. Do some research, Africa is not all the same.