Over the past year, I have been considering the Ethiopian photographs of Hans Silvester, especially his collections A Window on Africa: Ethiopian Portraits (2011) and Natural Fasion: Tribal Decoration from Africa (2008). Silvester started visiting the Omo Valley region of Ethiopia in 2003. Since then, he has returned at least two dozen times and has produced a large body of portraiture of the Suri, Surma, and Mursi peoples. A good deal of his images focus on the themes of body modification–piercings, scaring, and plating–and body decoration–painting and adorning with natural pigments, plant materials, and animal products. They focus also, on subjects presenting themselves as they’d like to be imagined through the frame of “the little red window”–carrying the tools of their trade, dressed in donga (stick fighting) attire, or carrying a prized animal or weapon.
As well, Silvester writes, they focus on the acts of looking and being looked at, on fashioning oneself through the fashions and looks of others because very often the subjects do not have mirrors or cannot see their own poses and must rely upon the expressions of others viewing them to adjust their self-fashioning. In these ways, these photographs communicate the community of these faces. And, community is the larger focus of these books, community in its larger sense for Silvester, on “the village community” in which he had his own “little niche” and became “part of daily life,” and on the evolution of “some kind of community” that is developing in response to the incredible political, economic, and demographic shifts taking place at this meeting point of three countries. As much as these portraits render their individual subjects in their presentations, they also document an end of traditions in the Omo Valley. Regional conflict has escalated. International development has arrived, especially from Asia. The two forces have converged on the Omo Valley. Roads are being built. Land cleared. Farms enlarged for scale production. Settlements turned into villages, into towns. The nomadic and separated tribes are being brought together, not by their own choice.
In his introduction to A Window on Africa, Silvester reflects on the changes taking place throughout the valley:
The experience has been a strange one for me. My little red window has become almost a mirror image of the startling changes taking place today in Africa, where so many conflicts have arisen from the coming together of different peoples, creating a chaotic jumble of humanity that obliges vastly different cultures and languages to bond together to form some kind of community. My window has captured a moment in time, nothing more, nothing less, and in its endless stream of faces we can see the diversity of humankind, its customs and its religions, in a place that the old world now has to share with the new, with strangers who are here to stay. What is happening to the Suri in Kibish on a small scale is happening all over our planet through globalization: all of us are now confronted with otherness, an inevitable meeting of the known and the unknown. (page 7)
One community has given way to another. A community of the village, of sameness and fitting into a niche has given way to a community of navigating conflicts, to “some form of community,” where negotiating difference and otherness become necessity. (Although, since previously one’s pose while self-fashioning has most likely been so affected by looking to the regard of another, we might question how much and in what ways these communities differ exactly. We might wonder what a thinker such as Derrida, Levinas, or Nancy would say of these conceptions of community. They would certainly be suspicious of any community with clearly defined boundaries, insides and outside, inclusions and exclusions.)
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I became interested in Hans Silvester’s work because my children are Ethiopian. On 20 January 2011, my wife Anne and I adopted a boy and a girl from Ethiopia. Before the adoption became final, we decided we needed to start collecting books, videos, music, recipes, and imagery from Africa, especially East Africa, and most especially Ethiopia. That is when I purchased A Window on Africa, intending to leave it around the house for my children to look at and care for.
However, my children are Tigrinya speakers, from Mekele, in the north of Ethiopia, near the disputed border with Eritrea. Their faces do not resemble the faces captured in Silvester’s portraits from the village of Kibish, in the south, near the borders of Kenya and South Sudan. My children recall their lives in a care center in the capital city of Addis Ababa more then anything else about Ethiopia. I am not certain how or what these photographs would communicate to them.
Each time I look through Silvester’s little red window book, I try to see something of the Ethiopia I have seen–Addis, Mekele, Aksum. I try to see something I think my children might regard as their community, something that might communicate to them. So far, I do not.
I have yet to share the book with my children. Its a book about them, but not. Its a book about their country of origin, but not. Its a book about community, but not their community. I fear this book will not communicate to them, and I am not certain what it might say if it does.