Capturing African Culture Wiping Out Traditions and Ceremonies

By KARI MUTU

Renowned photographers Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith have released a new photography book titled African Twilight: Rituals and Ceremonies of Disappearance.

The double volume contains 830 pages of stunning images from traditional communities in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo and West Africa.

African Twilight is their 17th book. The African Twilight exhibition is currently taking place at the Nairobi gallery.

The book will be officially launched in Kenya on March 3, at the House of African Heritage as part of a festival of music, dance and cultural attire.

The two women recently shared with me their travel experiences and the work involved in publishing a book.

Fisher, who is Australian, first came to Kenya in the 1970s to shoot a documentary on the Maasai.

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After graduating from art school, the US-born Beckwith traveled the world to study ethnic cultures like the Maasai, Turkana and the people of Lamu.

According to Beckwith, “I was fascinated by companies that did not create art, paintings and textiles to decorate a wall but rather to ensure their survival or their protection.”

The two women met in 1978 after Beckwith went on a hot air balloon safari in the Maasai Mara. The pilot was Fisher’s brother.

At first, they weren’t sure they could work together. But soon after, they realized that they both wanted to create a complete visual recording of African ceremonies from birth to death.

Over the past 40 years, Fisher and Beckwith have visited 44 African countries together and captured over 200 different cultures.

“We have the advantage of being women, we end up being able to photograph both men and women,” Fisher said.

They said it takes years to compile enough material for a book. Before each trip, they do extensive research and create timelines of important cultural events, some of which only occur after several years.

Sometimes the dates of the ceremonies change unexpectedly due to inclement weather conditions, war or the death of a prominent person.

For example, the recording of the male and female initiation ceremonies of the Pokot people in northern Kenya took over three years.

Reaching remote ethnic communities means driving over very difficult terrain to places beyond roads and maps.

Beckwith says, “You have to be open to serendipity and then trust people to help you. “

They traveled on camels, dhows and canoes.

“To get into Surma in Ethiopia, near the border with Sudan, we had to organize a 15 animal mule train with everything we needed for a five week stay,” Beckwith said.

They keep a diary of daily experiences, people they have met and ceremonies they have witnessed. To date, they have over 200 handwritten journals.

Of particular interest to African twilight these are the royal families in the Congo, a country where it was very difficult for them to enter.

Fisher says that for African Twilight they had to travel further than for previous books to find ceremonies that are still going on.

A leader of the Wadabe people of Niger, after having meticulously walked through African Twilight, described it as “a medicine to remember”.

Therefore, both are keen to ensure the long-term preservation of their material.

Now both 70, Beckwith and Fisher are looking for a place to house their collection of over 500,000 images, a thousand hours of film, and full exhibition pieces, most likely via a digital platform.

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