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Ethiopian Tribal Fashion

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The images came to us in an e-mail. The sender was one of the most important names in New York fashion circles, Candy Pratts Price. The subject: what inspires me. We stared at our screens with awesome curiosity. What is this? we asked. Not even the wildest imaginings of John Galliano, coupled with the genius of Price, could yield these wonders. Or could they? We learned they were from the book Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa (Thames & Hudson), by Hans Silvester, and they document the adornment rituals of the Surma and Mursi tribes of East Africa’s Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia. Each morning (and sometimes three or four times a day), in the same way we might rifle through a closet to put on a Prada shoe, they scour their surrounding landscape to create hats from tufts of grass, necklaces from snail shells, a scarf from banana leaves. The final effect, writes Silvester in his introductory essay, “is a fascinating dimension of mystery…that is almost magical. For them, [nature] provides an infinite wardrobe—the most amazing accessory shop you can imagine.” The look is finished with body paintings. “A small piece of ocher crushed with a pebble will yield a quantity of pale color when diluted with water,“ writes Silvester. “Green is obtained from a crumbly stone found on the riverbed.” For some tribespeople the process is rooted in the practical (women carry branches on their heads to shield themselves from the sun; ash can function as insect repellent), but the adolescents of the tribes devote considerable time—and talent—to the ritual, bringing it to its most elaborate peak. Remarkably it all happens in the absence of a mirror “or even a natural equivalent,” writes Silvester. “The silty water is always cloudy in the valley—the only way one can see oneself is through people’s reactions. An image of oneself…can therefore only be constructed through the eyes of others. And also, to a certain degree, through the lens of the camera.”

When the photographs were shown at New York’s Marlborough Chelsea gallery, in 2008, The New York Times’ Roberta Smith called the exhibit “at once revelatory and disturbing. I’m grateful to learn of their existence,” she wrote, “but wonder what—if anything—art world attention might bring them.” Silvester, too, expresses concern about the effects the burgeoning tourist trade will have on the culture. (One Mursi village has become a regular stop on the Kenyan tour itinerary.) For Price, who has covered the collections in Paris, Milan, and New York for decades and tracked their cultural impact, Silvester’s work offers a message for an often myopic world. “There’s noise in these pictures: I can hear the rustle of the foliage, I can smell the flowers,” she says. “These young designers—that is what they are—are busy at creating beauty all the time. How do they get that yellow? Are they girls or boys? There’s no gender really to be told. It’s just mankind and it’s a reminder, again, that it is not just about us.”

Marlborough Chelsea is at 545 West 25th Street, New York. For more information, go to marlboroughgallery.com.

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