Friday, 20 February 2009

Natural Fashion

We've just started a new module at university titled 'The Body Adorned'. We haven't been given an incredibly detailed brief yet, but I immediately thought of this book that I fell in love with recently titled Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa by Hans Silvester. It is an intriguing example of the kind of creativity that springs from humanity living in abundance and simbiosis with nature. The Surma and Mursi tribes of East Africa live near the busy streams and rivers that cut through the dry savannahs of the Rift, allowing for a bounty of fruit trees, grasses, flowers and papyrus to flourish. Especially before the arrival of the rain season, the hot weather encourages families down to the cooling shades of the water, where the inspiring raw materials for their creations lie. As Silvester notes; 

"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 people make their choices spontaneously but firmly... They live so closely to nature that they also act naturally..."

The Rift Valley is blessed with a rich paint-box of minerals and earth pigments. Red, ochre, shades of white, yellow and light grey - with the exception of blue, the tribes have access to concentrated colour that contrast beautifully with the coppery tone of their skin. The painting also has the practical property of protecting them from sun exposure. The pigments dry within seconds, which give the artists a spontaneous incentive to act in bursts.

What I find so fascinating is Silvester's thoughts on the up until recent absence of mirrors in these tribes. Even the rivers are too silty to provide a clear reflection, leaving the response and reaction of others as a measure. Since your self-image is determined through the eyes of others, the practice of body-painting and decoration is rarely done alone, and often in teams.  

Surely what we are seeing is one of the very first art forms - more than likely far far older than cave paintings and other recordable varieties. This close interaction with nature requires a knowledge of the properties of each material, leading to a tactile understanding and instinct for the environment. Perhaps this enjoyable way of learning was intrinsic to our survival - and how apt that this very human instinct to create and touch should still thrive in what is often referred to as the 'Cradle of Humanity'.

And just quickly (that was quite a big sentence I wrote up there), a slightly less spontaneous example of our rather more studied approach to dressing up... 

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