“Body painting, as practiced here in East Africa, the cradle of humanity, seems to me to represent a way of life that dates from prehistory and once enabled humankind to overcome the hostility of nature. Art was then a means of survival.” Hans Silvester
The images above are of the Surma and Mursi peoples, two of the fifteen Ethiopian tribes indigenous to the Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia. Both nomadic communities living close to and with nature, and placing great importance on decoration of the body over the spatial environment. Bright minerals for paint to embellish the skin, flora and fauna for ephemeral adornments . Whereas the Surma often draw from the varied “closet” of the plant world, the Mursi predominately adorn themselves with items derived from the hunt such as tusks, skins, shells and the like.
As Silvester describes in his book Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa, no underlying systems seem to exist. Mothers begin painting infants, and from there adolescence frolic in this pastime avidly dedicating themselves to this activity. One’s skill at bodily adornment is not judged by viewing ones own reflection as these are communities that are said to live in the absence of mirrors. Not even the waters of the Omo river provide a reflection in their muddy waters. The image of self, in particular, the adroit body ornamentation is deemed through the reaction it elicits in others, thus body painting amongst the Surma and Mursi is a group activity. Often boys will paint boys and girls, girls or one might paint themselves several times within a day. Lounging by the river, applying expressive, gestural quick strokes with natural pigments of red ochre, yellow sulfur, white kaolin and grey ash in a multitude of patterns and combinations. Motifs emblematic of families exist much like the Japanese kamon or the European coat of arms.
This ephemeral art form elevates and celebrates the body making it the ultimate canvas. The dextrous individual is the one that sees beyond the obvious, that perceives a leaf can transform to become a hat or a necklace, a reed becomes a ribbon, a branch with pods rather a head ornament. Oh to be so adroit.
Hans Silvester (b. Lorrach, Germany 1938) is a photographer dedicated to investigating the world, capturing and promoting the most intimate, and perhaps enigmatic, of organic phenomena. He is represented by the Marlborough Gallery.
All Images © Hans Silvester. Courtesy of the Marlborough Gallery.