Bowers Museum Displays Powerful Images of African Rituals

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Bowers Museum Displays Powerful Images of African Rituals
Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, Maasai Bride, Kenya, 1995. R-prints mounted on sintra and laminated in lustermate, 5' 4'' x 4'.

SANTA ANA, CA.- The Bowers Museum presents Passages: Photographs in Africa by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, an exhibition of dramatic images that portray time-honored African ceremonial traditions of the passing from one life phase into another by critically acclaimed photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. Known for their vibrant images of African life, the photographers have spent over 30 years traveling throughout Africa to document customs, rites of passage, and aspects of ceremonial practices. The exhibition features more than 90 large-scale photographs and six documentary videos, plus a selection of jewelry, masks, sculpture, and other African artifacts, drawn from the Bowers Museum's holdings as well as the photographers' personal collections, representing the cultures and themes seen in the images. Passages: Photographs in Africa by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher opens at the Bowers Museum on November 15, 2008 and remains on view through April 19, 2009 in the Janice Frey Smith and Robert Gumbiner Galleries.

In their decades of travel across Africa, Beckwith and Fisher have journeyed more than 270,000 miles by foot, camelback, dugout canoe, and four-wheel-drive vehicle to the continent's remotest corners. They have lived among the indigenous peoples, sharing their daily lives, and have gained access to photograph sacred ceremonies and traditions little known to the outside world. There are no other artists, of any era, who have captured so many images of authentic and ancient ritual practices.

Passages: Photographs in Africa by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher features photographs of the cycle of life in Africa, as well as the spiritual beliefs of its societies. The large-scale color photographs are grouped throughout the exhibition according to birth and initiation, courtship and marriage, royalty and power, seasonal rites, beliefs and worship, and finally, death and passage to the spirit-world. Among the images are photographs of coming-of-age ceremonies for Maasai boys in Kenya and Krobo girls in Ghana, extraordinary stick fighting as part of a courtship ritual among the Surma of southwestern Ethiopia, and wedding ceremonies of Himba women adorned with ocher earth of northwestern Namibia. Among the most intriguing ceremonies are the Wodaabe charm dances from central Niger. As part of their courtship, Wodaabe men dress in elaborate costumes and wear makeup for a "beauty contest" judged by women.

Along with the photographs, six video monitors display vibrant footage showing the ceremonies depicted in the images. The videos feature scenes of a Voodoo Kokuzahn ceremony from Ghana, a Dogon burial and masked Dama ceremony from Mali, a male Wodaabe charm dance, and Surma body painting and stick fighting. Also, musician and composer David Bradnum, who has travelled with the photographers on many of their expeditions, has compiled music to accompany the documentary video footage.

To bring the photographs to life, the exhibition showcases a variety of African objects. Several works are included from the Bowers Museum's permanent collection exemplifying African adornment and ceremonial objects from various native cultures in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others. Plus the photographers have loaned many jewelry items, such as Surma ear plugs and lip plates, Wodaabe pendant necklaces, and Fulani earrings from Mali.

Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher have followed a lifelong dream to document the ancient cultures of Africa. In 1978, the two photographers met one another at a Maasai warrior ceremony in East Africa, where they quickly recognized a common desire to record sacred ceremonies marking rites of passage within African life. Together they have produced a body of work that has garnered countless awards, media attention, and critical praise by artists, politicians, and peacemakers worldwide.

Before they began their collaboration, Beckwith and Fisher each lived and travelled extensively throughout Africa. Beckwith was born in the United States and educated at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She has been cited by United Press International as, "foremost among photographers who have recorded the cultures of the Far East, Pacific, and Africa." She is the author of two books on African cultures. Her first book, Maasai, won the prestigious Annisfield-Wolf Award in Race Relations, and the second, Nomads of Niger, was based on her three-year experience living with the Wodaabe nomads.

Fisher was born in Australia and educated at Adelaide University. She is the author of the internationally acclaimed Africa Adorned, a 14-year study of traditional jewelry and body decoration covering the entire continent of Africa. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and subject of a 34-page cover story in National Geographic. Fisher is also a jewelry designer and has exhibited her collection of African jewelry throughout the world.

Together, Beckwith and Fisher have produced 12 books on Africa. Their first publication, African Ark, a five-year study of the peoples and cultures of the Horn of Africa, received numerous awards, including the Institute of Human Origins Prize, The Golden Hand of Lucy, and the Annisfeld-Wolf Award in Race Relations. This was subsequently followed by their celebrated masterwork, the double-volume African Ceremonies, which received the United Nations Award of Excellence for their "vision and understanding of the role of cultural traditions in the pursuit of peace in the world," the London Royal Geographical Society's Kearton Medal for recording ethnography and ritual, and the French Biarritz Photography Festival's best book of the year. This double-volume formed the basis for the Passages exhibition.

Beckwith and Fisher then produced Faces of Africa: Thirty Years of Photography, followed by a series of limited edition books on the art of body-painting-Surma, Karo, and Maasai (The Art of Ochre in Africa). Their latest book, Dinka, a limited edition publication, will be launched at the Bowers Museum on Sunday, November 16, with a lecture and book signing.

Passages: Photographs in Africa by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher is organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA), and curated by William Siegmann, BMA Curator of the Arts of Africa, with Barbara Head Millstein, BMA Curator of Photography. Julie Lee, Bowers Curator of Exhibitions, is coordinating the exhibition presentation at the Bowers Museum.

Passages: Photographs in Africa by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher is accompanied by a softbound, 112-page lavishly illustrated catalogue with an introduction by Robert Morton and text describing each of the ceremonial rituals. In addition, African Ceremonies, an 850-page deluxe hardbound, two-volume boxed set is available featuring Beckwith and Fisher's first spectacular images of African ceremonial traditions. Passages: Photographs in Africa by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher can be purchased for $24.95 and the double-volume African Ceremonies for $150 (a concise edition of African Ceremonies is also available for $49.95) at the Bowers Gallery Store.

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