Africa is the New Black

The June issue of Lucky magazine in one hand and a steaming hot cuppa tea in the other, I unwillingly leave Zephyr and schlep begrudgingly back to the office, cursing the damn Santa Ana winds for whipping flyaways into my line of vision. It’s all I can do to keep from running up and down the hallways screaming bloody hell.

I need a vacation.

Besides going to the Philippines, I’ve had this recent itch to travel to Africa in an effort to fulfill my escapist, jet-setter fantasies. What’s making me uneasy about it is that trend setters everywhere are scratching that itch with bohemian, gypsy, exotic-patterned trends flooding every runway, blog and fashion magazine known to the fashion diva. I was cruising Anthropologie the other day and came across this book called Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration From Africa.



I was intrigued by the images of African aborigines adorned heavily in necklaces and headgear of lush vegetation until my guilty (social) conscience hit me with a sense of cognitive dissonance: how could I enjoy these pictures when it appears as though these individuals were observed as objects of fascination to feed our American appetites for the exotic?

It’s something I’ve been struggling with lately, especially since I’m really into the bohemian aesthetic and the fashion industry is taking every opportunity to capitalize on that. Most reviewers of the book through Amazon were a glowing 5 stars. However, one reviewer echoed sentiments similar to mine:

The sub title, “Decoration from Africa” is literally correct but substantially misleading. This is a book of sumptuous photographs of young and beautiful inhabitants of Ethiopia’s Omo valley. There are essentially no pictures of day to day life or the true context of these people’s lives. This book is not about daily life, nor does it pretend to be, but by describing its content as tribal decoration from Africa it promises something authentic. However, nearly everyone here is decked out in face and body paint and draped in a salad bar of lush leaves, sensual pods and pretty flowers. Are they decorating themselves out of some tribal tradition, or for the benefit of the potographer? Travel to southern Ethiopia has become very much easier in recent years. Small groups of intrepid tourists now visit the Omo frequently where as 20 years ago such visits were rare and arduous. Published images from the 80s will show villagers less flamboyantly made up. What appears to be happening is that a fashion show for foreigners is under way, much as what happened in the Nuba Hills of Sudan after Leni Reifenstahl published her famous photo essay hald a century ago. A more accurate title for this book would have been New Fashions: Tribal Children Decorate Themselves for Hans Silvester.”

I immediately geared up the search engine to google images of people from the Omo Valley, just to see if what this reviewer said holds significant validity. It kinda does. There were a variety of pictures depicting Omo Valley citizens in both what seemed to be more day-to-day garments as well as ensembles that were more elaborately decorated. 


I’m pretty sure that adornments may vary from region to region so there may actually be people who wear the bright green flora and fauna in Silvester’s images.

Recent years of highly publicized celebrity international adoptions is also why Natural Fashion leaves a sour taste in my mouth. What is this weird fascination with Black and Asian babies? I used to be an avid consumer of celebrity gossip back when I used tabloids as an outlet for escape, but I’ve long sworn off the junk, choosing to mingle with reality. Still, my world is not vaccuum-proof and the latest cover of People magazine with Sandra Bullock and her little Black bundle of joy made me cringe a little. First, Angelina made headlines with her melting pot brood, then Madonna, and now Miss Congeniality gives interracial adoption a whirl (at least she adopted him from the U.S.). And what I find completely ironic is that the adoption comes out after she collects an Oscar for The Blind Side.

Superficially, adoption is a wonderful thing. Who can knock a person who wants to give a child a home? Or wanting to remove  a child from living in impoverished conditions? However, the insane publicity of transnational adoptees and the choice to adopt from another country when children in our very own country are in need of homes gives me pause. Of course they probably may not even realize this but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to consider the possibility that these well-meaning adults are fulfilling a fantasy of their own.

During my grad school training, it wasn’t uncommon for White people to feel guilty about their privilege in this society. I always wonder if adopting children from Third World countries is an unconscious way for them to relieve themselves of that White Guilt. As if giving that child privilege helps even out the playing field in a way.

On the flip side, maybe transnational adoption is another outlet for White people to continue this legacy of colonization, albeit in a much more humane way. All of the power with none of the guilt. Western Imperialism has a legacy of colonizing “less civilized” societies (ie., Philippines, Native Americans, Africa) so those are being colonized strive to be like the colonizer at the expense of degrading their own culture. If these celebrities truly wanted to help these children, they’d quit trying to play God by pre-selecting what special child they can save from themselves. And what is wrong with adopting children from the U.S.? No child left behind, right? Instead, they should do like Oprah and work to help improve the child’s country of origin.

A-ny-wayyyy…back to Natural Fashion. I tend to overanalyze things which really cramps my whole creative mojo. I figure the only thing I really need to ask myself is if I would still be interested in Silvester’s images if they were done with White subjects and the answer is yes, I have been and am. Realistically, I can’t be completely immune to pop cultural influences. It’d be like asking Heidi Montag to stop getting plastic surgery. Which completely bugs cuz I want these pretty pictures to look at! I’ve had this issue before, and I’m tempted to get these books while recognizing that the images are pure fantasy and not realistic portrayals of the cultures they claim to embody.

Argh. To be continued…


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. adri
    Mar 18, 2011 @ 16:14:42

    I don’t think like you, I love those pictures and I’m glad there are people who work to show us those amazing cultures so we can know how interesting they are and how important are the aboriginal cultures for all humanity


    • shesgotplenty
      Mar 18, 2011 @ 23:12:02

      Perhaps it would benefit the discussion (if you’re looking for one) to explain further what you mean by “so we can know how interesting they are and how important are the aboriginal culture for all humanity.” The way you’ve worded your comment only confirms what I’ve said in my post which suggests that the subjects of Hans Silvester’s book dressed themselves up for the benefit of Hans himself as well as to promote tourism to Omo valley –so we can “know how interesting they are.” In addition, I’d be curious to know how aboriginal culture is important for humanity. I’m not saying it’s not; I’d just like to hear your thoughts on that.


  2. Trackback: Ideas – Tribal markings « ELLA WOOLLGAR

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