Thursday, June 18, 2009

Human Adornment: Photography of Hans Silvester

I received two messages yesterday that juxtaposed themselves in an interesting way. One was a video of images by photographer Hans Silvester, who has collected pictures of the Omo and other African people, in books such as Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa. The other was the poem here, by John Caddy, of the Morning Earth website, accompanied by this photo of a gorgeously adorned webworm, the natural kind.

Of all the images I've seen in my life of human adornment, I find those by Silvester to be the most intriguing and beautiful – not least because the humans here seem to show such a profound connection with and appreciation for the natural world. At the same time, such pictures make me somewhat uncomfortable, as they so clearly objectify those resources, both human and natural, that are increasingly exotic and vulnerable. What happens next to these people? And don't they put the rest of us to shame, not least because their artistic sensibility seems so sophisticated and contemporary, without exposure to the latest trends in either art or fashion? Here's a review from the New York Times that touches on these issues.

Caddy's poem catches some of this ambivalence for me, from the perspective of the humble worm. If the poem had begun "You say I'm lovely" it would echo the comments viewers make of the portraits in Silvester's books. The question "So how am I different from you?" seems so relevant in both instances. I think it's a real question, not just a rhetorical one.

There are several videos of Omo photos at YouTube, but I liked the one here best, not least for the music that accompanies it. I'm not sure what the music is, though, or who is making it. Watch the video, and let your eyes and soul be amazed.

You say I’m unlovely
but I know I’m fine.
I’m bristly and blue
with round yellow spots
in patches of black.
My long stripes of blue
are bordered in gold,
my skirt of orange bristles
is fit for a Chinatown dragon.
I hatch in my webs
by the thousands
and graze all the leaves I can find.
I am blessed in my beauty,
my manifold colors, I know I am chosen.
So how am I different from you?

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