A few days ago fb reminded me that I had scheduled a body painting event which, however, I had to give up. Of course, as often happens to me, taken by curiosity the day after I googled the evening to see the creations of the various artists at the event and among the results prompting several names of body painters, something interesting came out. These are not famous names, they don’t do performances, they don’t organize events on fb, these body painters are basically unknown, go around naked most of the time and they’re not just painters, or rather they don’t actually use paints but decorate their bodies with clay and dust and natural pigments by adding plants and flowers and whatever the land gifts.
In southern Ethiopia, in the remote Omo Valley, live tribes Surma and Mursi which paint their bodies long before the body painting became a recognized form of art.
The photographer Hans Silvester has documented habits and customs of these two tribes in his book “Natural Fashion” in 2008 showing the world how even without magazine, no boardwalks, almost no mirrors and no spaces for performances there can be art and fashion .
Initially, the colors were used for rituals, to indicate positions of belonging families, to celebrate the braves, to get rid of insects and protect from the sun. Going forward body paint also becomes a way to attract the opposite sex (and here then the use of makeup to make us beautiful plant its roots in old times and remote lands).
Not having canvas or markers and those coloring books for adults who are so fashionable now, men and women, adults and children express their creativity painting each other’s bodies and decorating them with various elements. While the tribes Surma tends to use flowers, fruits and plants, the Mursi tribe prefers the fruits of hunting as skins, horns and fur. In this case, therefore, the “fashion” is really dictated by the seasons and by their culture and there is certainly no risk that their creations are influenced by the customs of other cultures.
Personally the more I look at these photos the more I want to make a trip to witness live the creation of these “masterpieces”, but unfortunately the time available to us may not be as much anymore due to the increasing control of their lands by big companies and multinationals.
With the construction of Gibe III, the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa, and huge sugar cane plantations spread around it, the entire ecosystem of these peoples based on the natural cycle of the Omo River was upset and lands inhabited by the Surma and Mursi were almost fully occupied giving way to internal struggles for territory.
Again globalization affects the wrong way jeopardizing the survival of entire populations and depriving the world of beauty and originality.
With the hope that these two tribes will not be reduced to living in reserves, performing in front of the tourists to earn a living, we enjoy some of the few and precious images that the eyes and camera of Hans Silvester wanted to give to the world, wondering how much art and beauty we will lose again …