Many coffee table books are diverting. A few are even remarkable. A very small group can ignite your mind. One that easily fits into that last category is Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration From Africa by Hans Silvester. A sober, even bland title, but a book of wonders is inside its covers, a collection of photos of exuberantly beautiful people, the Surma and Mursi tribes which inhabit the remote area where the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan meet. They adorn themselves almost exclusively with natural materials common to the area-plants, flowers, seedpods, gourds, grass, butterfly wings, boar’s teeth and so on. That in itself isn’t unusual-using local nature to give yourself beauty and meaning is universal among indigenous peoples. What’s extraordinary here is the sheer aesthetic power of these people. You may never before have seen such inventive, such gloriously imaginative transformations of nature into clothing, face paintings and general human presentation. The poet Robinson Jeffers wrote “…the divine beauty of the universe/Love that, not man apart from that…” and those lines spring to mind as you look at these pictures. Notions of the Garden of Eden and the Golden Age also come to mind. This part of East Africa is, in fact, the birthplace of the human race. Olduvai Gorge isn’t too very far away. In these pages humans do in fact seem to be at one with nature, celebrating it, reveling in it.
After many pages of face paint the color and design of which would make any Fauvist proud (and yet these tribes have almost certainly never heard of the Fauvists),crowns made of fruits, cloaks of bright green leaves and seedpod headdresses, you may think there are perhaps too many miracles here. The costuming makes just about anything you’d see at a theatre play or a fashion runway look bland by comparison. Then your reverie collapses: a photo of a boy holding a wooden toy rifle. The snake grows larger a dozen or so pages later when you see an adult man holding a real rifle. So much for paradise. You go back to the introduction again and notice a couple of lines about tribal warfare, forest destruction, encroaching tourism, the usual rot. All of this of course makes the genius of these tribes all the more valuable because it’s so precarious. You can still, however, be stunned and thrilled by the overwhelming beauty here. But you won’t feel like singing in the rain.
Reviewed by Richard Grooms/Central Library/Social Sciences Department