Over 30 years ago, Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher met in Kenya. Since then, these friends have been traveling, exploring, and photographing Africa in an attempt to capture the beauty of the continent’s indigenous people and cultures. Their photography is a diverse portrait of over 40 countries and 150 different cultures and this journey has taken them to some of the most remote corners of Africa. No other artists have captured as many images of authentic cultural and ritual practices. Their images present a colorful and vibrant look into a world that is quickly disappearing.
Beckwith and Fisher’s work has been exhibited in museums around the world and they have had comprehensive exhibitions at such institutions as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the National Geographic Museum, the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They have made four films that also express their interest in and love for Africa as well as publishing several award-winning books such as their two-volume magnum opus, African Ceremonies (Abrams, 1999). Beckwith and Fisher received the Award of Excellence from the United Nations Society of Writers and Artists “for vision and understanding of the role of cultural traditions in the pursuit of world peace,” and were specially honored by Kofi Annan in 1999. They have also been awarded the distinguished Lifetime Award by WINGS. Beckwith and Fisher are passionate about completing the record of Africa’s fast disappearing cultures, and leaving a legacy for future generations, as well as bringing these ancient timeless values into our 21st century world.
What brought you two together? Did it start as a friendship and evolve into a working relationship? Or vice versa?
We first met in Africa in 1979. Carol was working on her book, Maasai, and Angela on her pan African study of jewelry, Africa Adorned. Carol’s father came to Kenya to visit her and offered her a hot air balloon ride over Maasai Mara for her birthday. The hot air balloonist was Angela’s handsome brother, Simon. At 1000’ in the air, Simon looked deeply into Carol’s eyes and said, “There is something I’d really like to tell you.” Carol’s heart beat wildly. Simon continued to look into her eyes and said, “I’d really like you to meet my sister.” Carol’s heart sank. Simon spent many months arranging a meeting between the two of us. One year later we finally met at Angela’s traditional jewelry exhibition in Nairobi. Simon was right – we really were kindred spirits, sharing a love for traditional cultures and the nomadic way of life. Within one week we were photographing side by side at a Maasai warrior ceremony on the border of Kenya and Tanzania. This was the beginning of a 35-year collaboration – crisscrossing the African continent, visiting 40 countries and studying 150 different cultures. Together we produced 15 photographic books. Early on we agreed to take joint credit for all of our images so that our egos would not get in the way of both our work and friendship.
Carol, I know you trained at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Angela, how were your photographic skills developed?
Carol trained in painting, photography and art history at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She was awarded a Travelling Fellowship upon graduation which enabled her to study abroad for one year. She went to Japan to study calligraphy painting in a Zen temple, and to Burma, Thailand and New Guinea to explore and photograph traditional societies in this part of the world. This fascination with traditional cultures led her to Africa where she spent the next 35 years exploring remote corners of the continent – photographing, writing and drawing about people and their art forms, body adornment, ceremonies and rites of passage. During this time she published 15 photographic books, 13 of which were in collaboration with Angela Fisher.
Angela studied Sociology at the University of Adelaide before leaving Australia for Africa at the age of 21, driven by a passion for the arts, jewelry and body adornments of traditional cultures, and inspired by the Maasai of the Serengeti Plains. She soon began travelling to the four corners of the African continent, working with photographers, recording and collecting traditional jewelry for her first exhibition in Nairobi in 1973.
In the following years, Angela went on to exhibit internationally jewelry and photographs from travels across the globe, through Africa, Afghanistan, India, Ladakh, Nepal and Yemen. It was during an exhibition in London that she was approached by an American publisher who commissioned her to make her first photographic book, on body adornment in Africa, which led to a seven-year project in forty countries and began a lifelong relationship with the camera.
Why is your work solely focused on Africa? What inspired you to travel there in the first place?
We were captivated by the beauty, diversity and immensity of Africa – with its 54 countries, 1300 cultures and unimaginable drama of geography. One could not do justice to it in a lifetime – and so we each plan to live for 150 years to complete our recording of the vast magnificent continent.
Initially Carol was drawn to explore cultures whose art forms were motivated by the desire to enhance the quality of life and the need to protect existence.
Angela was drawn to Africa first by a fascination with the nomadic peoples who, unable to acquire sculptures or monuments, focus all their creativity on decorating and adorning their bodies in ways that are not only beautiful, but contain coded symbols and information which, when interpreted, offer a secret window into their lives.
Your book, Painted Bodies of Africa, recalls another one of our artists, Roberto Edwards and his series Cuerpos Pintados. What have you found to be the significance of body painting in African cultures?
Body painting is one of the oldest art forms on the African continent, dating back over 100,000 years – it is often referred to as the fine art of “dressing.” Body painting serves many important purposes and gives out coded messages. It indicates availability and presents irresistible appeal to the opposite sex. It establishes status in society, signifies courage and bravery, honors the achievements of warriors – including those who have killed dangerous enemies or human enemies – and reveals one’s stage of life, often the generational clan to which one belongs.
Roberto Edwards is our inspiration and mentor. He is the publisher of our five limited edition books on the art of African body painting. An exceptional artist in his own right, he is above all an extraordinary human being and our very special friend.
What ceremony or ritual that you have witnessed would surprise people the most?
Wodaabe Male Charm Dance, Niger. At the annual gathering of up to 1000 nomads in the Sahel, Wodaabe, men perform charm and beauty dances and the women serve as judges, selecting boyfriends, husbands and lovers. The men form long lines rising up and down on tip toe, roll their eyes from side to side, and smile broadly to display their beautiful white teeth. If a man can hold one eye still and roll the other in and out, he is considered irresistible to his female judges.
Hamar Jumping of the Bull Ceremony, Ethiopia. When a young man is ready to become an elder, he must prove his manhood by leaping across the backs of up to 30 bulls, lined up and held tightly by their horns and tails. He is required to repeat this jump four times. If he falls off, he will be teased mercilessly by women for the rest of his life.
Ashanti Female Coming of Age Celebration, Ghana. In the matriarchal society of the Ashanti, when a girl first menstruates the entire village celebrates honoring her new found status as a woman.
How have the difficult and uncertain political and economic conditions of Africa impacted your work?
Working in uncertain or dangerous political and economic situations has often impacted our work. In South Sudan we had to wait nearly two decades for the civil war to end between the Islamic North and the Christian and Animist South in order to complete our book, Dinka: The Legendary Cattle Keepers of Sudan.
To complete our book, African Ark, we had to convince the Marxist government of Ethiopia to bring us into Eritrea, with whom they were at war, and to protect us during our stay there. They finally agreed to take us into Eritrea during the rainy season because no one wanted to fight. They also agreed to clear the roads of land mines to allow us to record the ancient cultures of what was then Northern Ethiopia. Our two-year book project took five years to complete.
What are the greatest challenges you encountered while working there?
Calendar logistics: How to find out when ceremonies would occur, often by studying the lunar calendar.
How to get there? Choosing to go by four-wheel drive, camel caravan, mule train, sailing dhow, dugout canoe, or on foot?
What to eat? Would we bring our own food, or enjoy local cuisine around a camp fire?
How to get permission to photograph ceremonies? We would sit under an Acacia tree befriending the village chief, building trust, and making sure not to take out our cameras until we were accepted by the community.
How to thank the community for opening their world to us? We would gather the elders together and ask them what they most needed to ensure their survival and improve the quality of their lives, making sure that their projects did not depend on us for their sustainability.
How to raise funds to carry out local projects as a thank you? We established a charitable foundation, African Ceremonies, Inc., in order to both record and preserve the ancient traditions of Africa, as well as to establish important projects needed by the communities with whom we worked.
What have been the most salient changes you have witness in Africa over the last 30 years?
We have witnessed the loss of traditional cultural practices and beliefs as each new generation moves forward and embraces the 21st century, bringing with it the powerful influence of the outside world.
We have felt compassion for the elders as they watch their traditional world and values disappear, and empathy for the young generation seeking a new way of life. We are touched by the children of this generation who come to us asking about their grandparents – who were they, where did they come from and what did they believe in?
How has the job of a documentary photographer changed during your time in the field?
Over 40% of what we have recorded during the past 35 years no longer exists or has changed dramatically. We have dedicated our lives to documenting the last of the truly traditional cultures on the continent. For decades, we were among the first outsiders to visit many of the traditional societies. Today, Africa has opened up to the world and digital photography has become accessible to everyone. Many young photographers are visiting these societies and exposing them to the world – this is both a blessing and a curse.
We would like to train as many African photographers and writers as possible so they can record their own rich traditions before they disappear.
Could you talk a bit about your 501c programs and your efforts to give back to the Africans you encounter?
Our charitable foundation African Ceremonies Inc. has a threefold purpose:
To record on still lm, moving lm, illustrated journals and travelling exhibitions the rich cultural traditions of Africa’s 54 countries. We have worked in 40 countries and covered over 150 different cultures. Many of these traditions are fast disappearing. We want to create a legacy, a rich cultural history, for future generations of Africans as well as the world at large.
In consultation with the elders of each of the cultures we have worked in, we have developed projects to assist their communities – projects which they request and which do not depend on us for their maintenance. For example: digging wells, building clinics, assisting with education from building primary schools to providing tuition for university students, assistance with food supplies during drought, and working with women in famine relief camps to develop weaving and basketry income generating projects.
Our greatest gift back to Africa is the archive we have created of 500,000 still images, 1,000 hours of moving lm, 200 illustrated journals, 4 major travelling exhibitions and 17 published books. We are looking for a home in a museum, university, or public institution to house our archive as a vital educational resource for future generations.
We have always been guided by the African concept of reciprocity, “What you take, you give back.” We can never thank Africa enough for all it has given us.
Do you have certain pictures that you’d call your “favorites,” or ones that are very meaningful to you?
Our “favorites” reflect the depth of our involvement with a group of people combined with the aesthetic of a good photograph. For example, the Dinka of South Sudan have a unique relationship with their cattle which reflects the belief that their animals are their link to God. We feel we captured this in “Dinka Boy with Long Horned Bull” (p.17 of Dinka) and “Dinka Cattle Camp at Sunset” (p.102-103 of Dinka). The Wodaabe of Niger, whom we have visited for 34 years, are also very close to our hearts, as illustrated by the cover, “Nomad Herder on Camelback,” from Nomads of Niger, and “Three Wodaabe Male Charm Dancers” (p.181 of African Ceremonies Vol.1). Also included in our “favorites” are images of the inspiring art forms of African jewelry as illustrated by “Adioukrou Queen Mother” (p.376 of African Ceremonies Vol.1) and “Turkana Girl with Fish on her Head” (p.303 African Ceremonies Vol.1). Images of the fine art of body painting “Painted Surma Man” (on the cover of Painted Bodies) and “Pro le of Kara Man Painted in Ocher” (p.86-87 of Painted Bodies) are also especially meaningful to us.
What do you hope people appreciate when they look at your pictures?
We want people to appreciate the tremendous creativity of Africa. We try to tell the story behind the news headlines celebrating the dignity of people, the beauty of their art forms, and the meaningful way Africans move through life from birth to death marking each stage with rituals and rites of passage. We are deeply moved by the enormous diversity of the continent with its 1300 different cultural/ethnic groups spanning 54 countries – a statistic which often surprises our readers and audiences. We want people to journey through our books celebrating the many ways people live their lives — appreciating our differences and at the same time recognizing and honoring our commonality.
This interview is part of a series conducted by Holden Luntz Gallery, based in Palm Beach, Florida.
Interviewer : Sara Tasini
Holden Luntz Gallery
332 Worth Ave
Palm Beach, FL 33480