I came across Hans Silvester’s photography online a couple months ago and was so taken with it that I immediately bought his book Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa.
Silvester travelled to Africa’s remote Omo Valley, on the borders of Sudan, Kenya, and Ethopia, to document the body art of the Surma and Mursi tribes. Traditionally nomadic, the people of these tribes have very few physical belongings. Without architecture, textiles, or handcrafted goods to tote around, they use their naked bodies as canvases, grinding earth and stone into powdered pigments and using all kinds of natural elements as added flourishes—grasses, leaves, pods, fruits, flowers, butterfly wings, animal pelts.
Body painting, in some form or another, has existed for nearly as long as humans have existed, long before even the cave paintings of Lascaux, and yet the resulting look is strikingly modern, like something out of a high fashion spread in Vogue. There’s a spontaneous quality to the mark making and an intuitive sense of design on par with the greats of Abstract Expressionism. But unlike the paintings on the walls of a museum or gallery, these works are unattached to monetary valuation, fame, and art world critique (at least until tourism entered the picture).
For these tribes, who lived for thousands of years in a world without mirrors, let alone smartphones and selfie sticks, there is a beautifully un-self-conscious fluidity at play. Work is created without explanation or justification, for no special occasion other than momentary creative impulse (“People simply paint themselves for no particular reason and at no particular time”). I realize that it’s easy to romanticize older, simpler ways of life, and yet, in considering these images, it’s hard not to feel as if something vital has been lost:
“For Westerners, any such activity might demand great intellectual effort—which branch, what colour, how and where should they be arranged?—and the whole process could seem laborious, but here the people make their choices spontaneously but firmly, and with a particular instinct for what will work. They do not spend any time thinking about it. They live so close to nature that they also act naturally, and at quite astonishing speed.”
It’s difficult to describe how deeply these images affect me. They feel sacred in the truest sense, as if these artists are so in tune with the diversity of our planet’s life forms that they channel the same creative impulses effortlessly themselves. Each new expression is entirely unique: “These body paintings are totally free, and yet they never repeat themselves, and there is no underlying system. Each one is extraordinarily fresh.” They are also ephemeral, as all living things are unique and ephemeral. All it takes is a quick dip in the river to wipe clean the canvas, like the original shake of an etch-a-sketch.
These images reframe the modern art and fashion worlds in a much wider anthropological and environmental context, opening up new realms of possibility, and causing us to question much that we take for granted. Why is it that I wake up in the morning and paint mascara on my eyelashes, staining my cheeks with blush? Why do I cover my body with these particular clothes?What if I painted polka dots on my face instead, or wove grasses through my hair? At the very least, it seems worthwhile to wonder.
This is what humans have been doing for thousands of years, in all places and times throughout history: adorning our bodies, our homes, and our belongings with color and pattern, reinterpreting the world around us through our own art and design, and following our creative whims for reasons we can’t quite articulate, simply because doing so brings us joy.
This mind-boggling display of creativity affects the way I think and feel about my own work as an artist, as well as my role as a creature of this earth. I have long been enamoured with the idea that the innate creativity of the world itself is inseparable in some way from the creativity of any one person. And that most art, if not all, is in some way a replication, even if it is unconscious, of the world we live in and observe everyday:
“If one really has to find a reference for this art form, it would have to be in its mimicry of nature and of animals. One man might paint his own face in a manner clearly inspired by that of a monkey; someone else will colour his torso like an animal skin; another will make his legs look like the hangings tree roots of plants such as mangroves. Each artist reproduces the things he has seem through his close proximity to nature.”
This notion helps me better understand some of my own creative impulses, like my urge to capture patterns in my environment and paying homage to them through photography and textiles. There may not be mangroves and monkeys in Portland, Oregon, but there are cherry blossoms and mosses and a million other textures, both urban and natural, to get lost in on a daily basis. Like this dappled sunlight I saw on the street last spring,
which later became this floaty, silk voile scarf.
We take the beauty that is pre-existent in the world and make it our own, decorating our bodies with it. No matter who we are, or where or when we live, the creativity of nature inevitably informs our art. The Surma and Mursi tribes offer such a beautiful example of what free, playful, un-self conscious creation can look like. And the point perhaps is not to suddenly strip down and wear only seed pods and painted stripes, but to find ways to tap into that same fundamental intuition that unfolds flower buds and spots animal fur, that compels us to create something that has never before been created while channeling an impulse as old as time.