A captivating journey through Traditional African Ceremonies

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Left: Bamileke Elephant Mask, Cameroon | Right: Pende Kitenga Mask, DR Congo
Left: Bamileke Elephant Mask, Cameroon | Right: Pende Kitenga Mask, DR Congo

An extraordinary collection of photographs in the double volume book, African Twilight, uncovers the vibrant world of traditional ceremonies and rites of passage from birth to death.

The sheer numbers associated with Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher’s work is startling: 40 years spent travelling across the continent, photographing 150 communities in 48 of the continent’s 54 countries. This latest book, African Twilight, accounts for their last 15 years of travel across 14 countries documenting key moments in the lives of 31 communities.

If you are new to Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher’s work, let’s start with the objection you might raise about it: the western gaze; or more precisely, the fact that African traditions are seen through the prism of two western women.

Ever since the first Europeans have travelled to Africa, their gaze, combined with photography, has characterised and crystallised African people in the collective memory, as the less sophisticated “other” (19th century) and then the extremely poor and sick “other.” (20th century).

Traces of this legacy can still be found in the newly opened Photography Centre at the V&A Museum or the work of contemporary artist Owanto, (exhibiting at 1:54 Art fair in 2017) whose Flowers series is a critique of some images taken during traditional ceremonies.

In an effort to reframe the narrative about the continent and its inhabitants, most pictures we see today, aimed at positively portraying Africa, depict urban centres, with gleaming high-rises and state of the art facilities. There is nothing wrong with these pictures, except that they imply, somehow that a rebalancing act or a parity of treatment could only be achieved within the limited framework of modernity, as far away as possible from dusty ancestral African traditions.

Amidst these binary, two-dimensional visions of the continent, African Twilight is an aesthetically stunning, dignified portrayal of a disappearing world that adds an incredible depth to the collective discourse.

Left: Kara Man Painted for Courtship, Ethiopia / Right: Harvest Leaf Masks, Burkina Faso
Left: Kara Man Painted for Courtship, Ethiopia / Right: Harvest Leaf Masks, Burkina Faso

The double-volume book records the rites of passage that punctuate life, from birth to death, in several cultures. It commences with initiations; the transition into adulthood, and continues with courtship and celebrations of the seasons in volume 1 and concludes with life in the Kingdoms of Congo and Benin, the spiritual world and death in the second volume.

The courtship images, in particular, taken in four separate communities are an exceptional display of traditional artistry. In Kenya, Ariaal courtship involves a “wonderful way of decorating their hair” whereas further north, among the Turkana, “there is a great emphasis on the use of jewellery and adornment.” The images, the photographers remarked, show a “great diversity in Africa” and the “different ways people achieve the same things.” Also, the images convey with extreme acuity the mood of each ceremony, from the stillness of time in a cemetery in Madagascar to the fast flow of movement of the Benin spirit dancers, and everything in between.

The book threads a very fine line, showcasing without either judging or romanticising, important rituals including those that are now frowned upon or forbidden, such as female circumcision. The pictures exude a sense of proximity that gives the reader the feeling of being present without being a voyeur.

It’s a feat that goes beyond technical photographic capabilities and speaks directly of Beckwith and Fisher’s ability to connect with people and build reliable relationships. I talked to Jim Grove when he exhibited the portraits of the Windrush Generation, and he said that as a documentary photographer, his work hinged on access and trust. That is even more important when, like Beckwith and Fisher, the documentary work is taking place in remote communities whose languages they do not speak fluently.

Access came through research, serendipity or lengthy negotiations. In the case of the Kuba Kingdom (located in The Democratic Republic of Congo), it took all three combined in a process that lasted 12 years. To communicate and build trust, the photographers relied on a “funny habit” they developed. They “try to learn 50 words of the language of every group [they] work with,” and they wrote it down on their hands, every day for the duration of their trip.

Their cultural sensitivities, long-term travelling in Africa and their choice of suitable guides have enabled these extensive field trips, documented in nearly 1000 pages of African Twilight. Central to the adventure is the photographers’ relationship. Taking a leaf out the African communities’ value book, the two photographers often speak as one, completing each other sentences. Together they have co-authored 13 books.

Salaei Maasai Warrior Procession, Tanzania, African Twilight, Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher
Salaei Maasai Warrior Procession, Tanzania, African Twilight, Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher

This latest one is the culmination of a long-held dream they had when they first met in Kenya 40 years ago, upon the insistence of Simon, Angela’s brother. Within a week of shooting together, they had envisioned, creating a record of traditional African communities’ ways of life.

Over the last four decades, Beckwith and Fisher have witnessed the fast-paced changes Africa is going through. Urbanisation and its bedfellow, rural migration into big cities, along with technological advances have profoundly altered the fabric of traditional societies, putting the communities’ lifestyle under increasing pressure. “The introduction of mobile phones” the duo commented, “has brought the outside world to Africa faster than anything else.” Now, about 40% of the ceremonies they have recorded have disappeared. At this rate, it is possible that their archives might be among the only few resting places of traditional African customs.

Despite its encyclopedic size and shape, African Twilight represents only the tip of the iceberg of the photographer’s work: half a million images, detailed illustrated diaries, and videos. At the twilight of their travelling adventures, Beckwith and Fisher’s attention is now turned toward finding a “home” for their records and the creation of an official archive. That would be the pair’s ultimate legacy: extending through the generations, to those who couldn’t be there, the access they were granted to the traditional ceremonies. Making these visual documents available to researchers and future generations will truly make Beckwith and Fisher’s records what Mokao, a traditional chief, called in their book “maagani yegitata” “Medicine not to forget.” (P11. V1).

Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher will be presenting their work and signing copies of African Twilight at Tribal Gathering London, 1 Westbourne Grove Mews W112RU, on Dec 7th from 7 pm – 9 pm.

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