By Joy Kitheka
Originally Published on TribalCalling.com
Detail: feature article on the tribes of the Omo Valley, Ethiopia
In their earthly adornments of wild berries, fruit and foliage, the Mursi and Suri people of the Omo Valley in south Ethiopia have dazzled the lenses of many tourists to the region. One such in particular, is German-born photographer, Hans Silvester.
Over countless journeys to the eastern corner of Africa, Hans Silvester became enthralled by the artistic genius of the Mursi and Suri tribes. The Mursi and Suri belong to the larger pan-ethnic group, Surma, who share an affection for natural decoration.
In the vast dry savannah, the parched landscape provides the perfect backdrop for the fashion show that ensues. Despite the hot and dry conditions, the Omo Valley is home to some exotic plants and fruits. Around the rivers that quench the thirsty savannah, a buffet of wild fruit and berries, papyrus and flowers, offers itself to the infinite imagination of tribesmen seeking creative outlet.
Without pencil or crayon, lacking paper or pen, the Mursi and Suri transform their bodies into works of organic art using twigs, feathers, leaves and fruit. Banana leaves are wrapped around the head to create stylish, trendy hats, while exotic flowers are transformed into dangling earrings.
Painting abstract designs of shapes, dots and lines, their bodies are transformed into canvasses. Vivid oranges, tranquil greens and feverish yellows are coated over their deep brown skin. As tourists crowd the dusty planes, they begin to model their avant-garde creations.
In this corner of Africa, inspiration exists in the thorny shrubs and grassy fields, on the scales of trees and on the imperfections of nature – every organism of creation contributes to this spectacular display of creativity.
Without the vanity of mirrors, I wonder if this game of dress-up is concerned with reflecting the beauty they see in nature, rather than actually being beautiful themselves. As there are no mirrors, they become each other’s eyes: using vibrant mineral paints, they paint onto each other the beauty they see around, and perhaps in, themselves.
The contrast between the land and its inhabitants is striking as they embrace the distorted bends and cracks of exotic trees and fractured leaves.
This is not just about creativity, but about how they see themselves in relation to their surroundings: it’s the complete embrace of their environment as a part of who they are. The result is that the beauty of the natural world becomes their own – the perfect fusion of man and nature.
This explosion of colour and flamboyant dress is the Surma’s natural reaction to their environment: restoring the lacking landscape, they become the flowers, fruit and leafy trees that have withered away in the heat of the savannah sun.
Photographer Hans Silvester beautifully captures this organic display of body painting and natural adornments in a series of 160 vibrant photographs featured in his book, Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa (2007). In the book, Silvester expresses concern that these traditions may be lost as modern society encroaches on this vastly unexplored region.
Visitors of the Omo Valley have raised concerns over the traditions of the Surma tribes being exploited for tourism and encouraging fantasies of exoticism as the Mursi are displayed for exhibition. While this is a sensitive issue and contributes to the necessary dialogue on ethical tourism, we shouldn’t dismiss the innate ingenuity of the Surma tribes. Their instinctual response to using the materials around them to create such inventive art should be celebrated and praised in much the same way as we do western artists and designers.
As they stride the grassy catwalks of the savannah, they remain the envy of less colourful parades.