Photographer captures body art of Ethiopian tribes

February 7th, 2011 | by addis portal |

It’s all about photography in two exhibits opening this week in the Tampa Bay area.

The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts brings the face and form of Africa vividly alive in the exhibition, “Natural Fashion: Art and the Body Photographs by Hans Silvester,” opening Thursday and running through April 10.


Hans Silvester got this photo during one of his trips to the Ono Valley in Ethiopia.

A German-born photographer, Silvester spent six years in the remote Omo Valley of Ethiopia taking pictures of members of the Surma and Mursi tribes. The resulting collection of photographs offers an exceptional view into the world of African art.

The brilliant whites, yellows like the sun, warm oranges, grass greens and earthy ochers on the faces and bodies of the people in Silvester’s photographs give glowing testimony to the stones, grasses, leaves, flowers and soil sources that were used to create the colors.

And then there are the leaves used as hats, and wreaths of purple pods across the forehead. They truly are decked out in nature’s finest.

For these Ethiopian people, painting is a cherished art form, as well as a cultural adornment, something they spend a lot of time doing. No face is left unattended. Lacking mirrors, they often work in groups or in pairs, decorating each other, constructing art on faces and arms and legs rather than on canvases.

“You’ll se that in some of the pictures in the show, how they are decorating each other,” said curator Joanne Milani.

Although the people in the photographs live in a remote region of Ethiopia, one that is relatively untouched by 21st century ideas, they display an understanding and aptitude for art that is visually compelling, even to modern eyes.

“I was fascinated by how human beings can have an instinct for beauty,” said Milani. “It’s almost like beauty gives you power. I don’t know if the people in the images think of it that way, but it’s just such an instinct, this love for things that are beautiful.”

Executed quickly several times a day, the paintings for these tribe people are somewhat like a change of clothes is for us.

“The colors are so ephemeral. They’re not going to last even one day. The paints are going to wash off, so it’s beauty for the moment; beauty for its own sake,” Milani said.

Silvester has published a two-volume book of his photographs, titled “Ethiopia: Peoples of the Omo Valley.” Some of the photos in the exhibit are from his book.

For the first time, the Photographic Museum will publish a catalog about the exhibit, with a statement by curator Milani, biographical information about Silvester and images from the exhibit.

It’s a feast for the eyes not to be missed. There also will be an opportunity to meet and talk with photographer Silvester, who will fly in from New York if the weather is willing, at an opening reception at 6 p.m. Thursday at the museum, 200 N. Tampa St. in downtown Tampa, with entry on Jackson Street.

Mark your calendars for other events related to the exhibit. They are: Gallery talk by Silvester at 11 a.m. Saturday; “Photography at 5 Happy Hours” from 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 17 and March 17; Children’s face-painting and Parade (docent tour for parents) at 2 p.m. Feb. 26; Arbonne Make-Over Days: Natural Products, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 4 and April 1; Family Hat-Making Day, 2 p.m. March 12.

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