Three black men wearing elaborate make-up, hats and costumes, their eyes open wide and smiling broadly to show off their white teeth are posed under a parasol of primary colors. It is a picture so striking, so comical, so endearing that anyone would have to stop and wonder, "What is going on there?" These are the Wodaabe male charm dancers of Niger who consider large eyes and white teeth to be a powerful source of attraction for the opposite sex when they perform their Yaake dance. These remote beings also appear completely comfortable posing for this photograph which was taken by British Carol Beckwith and American Angela Fisher. It is just one of many exceptional pictures by this duo, who have been photographing ceremonies and rituals in Africa for 30 years, in No Strangers: Ancient Wisdom in a Modern World at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City through February 24, 2013.
The show was organized by anthropologist and photographer, Wade Davis, PhD, who is no less than explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. He wrote the text for the small catalogue for the show stating, "Studies of the human genome have left no doubt that the genetic endowment of humanity is a single continuum. Race is an utter fiction. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth, descendents of a relatively small number of individuals who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago."
Since then, we have migrated to every corner of the globe and become thousands of different cultures, speaking some 7,000 languages. The exhibition features photographs of far flung cultural beliefs and rituals that may appear bizarre, incredible or beautiful but that also have a purpose: Survival, intelligence, communication are manifested in ways that we cannot decipher.
The show is organized according to sections like "quest of spirit" or "rituals and passages" so these remarkable photographs, all color, are not identified by the accomplishments of the individual photographers, all of whom are accomplished, but by the subject of their work. Traveling for months on end, living under rough conditions, the photographers sought to gain the trust of people who often had very little idea of the Western world. There are nomadic Mongols, one riding a rearing white horse in the snow with a tamed eagle on his arm, taken by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami; aborigines walking their songlines, photographed by Wade Davis; bare-chested hunters on the Indus river in Pakistan attach live birds to their heads to attract other birds that they then are able to capture, a technique used for 5,000 years and photographed by Randy Olson. There is nothing in this show that is not fascinating and further enhanced by a short film about the photographers and the cultures.
In addition, Beckwith and Fisher have new and lavish book of their photographs, Painted Bodies: African Body Painting, Tattoos, and Scarification," published by Rizzoli. More of their photographs are on view at the Minotti showroom, 8936 Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood through December 31. Sadly, they report that nearly half of the rituals and ceremonies that they have photographed for decades no longer exist being lost to war, famine and industrialization. Other photographers have made similar observations. Thankfully, we have the pictures.
For further information go to www.annenbergspaceforphotography.org.
Banner Image: Wodaabe male charm dancers of Niger © Beckwith/Fisher