HUMAN ZOO : THE LIP PLATES
These images are a tribute to the beauty and grace of the people of the Valley. They capture a time when tribal fashions — such as lip plates and scarification — are being supplanted by global fashions such as baseball caps, football shirts and, more sinisterly, the bearing of Kalashnikovs and the Chinese-made guns that flood all East Africa’s’ borders. The cultural heritage appears fragile, threatened by the world encroaching upon the territory but the people, with their inherent capacity for transition, take incoming influences and fashion them into their own estimations.
In 2008 I started taking a portable studio to isolate the subjects from their surroundings, extracting the individual from his or her contextual backgrounds so as to bring their gaze, unmediated, into the image. The subjects confront the viewer, life size, they command immediacy and attention to the modernity of their situation; they are tangible beings looking directly through the flat image. Seeking to question further the limitations of this flatness, I have begun inserting the defining accessories that indicate the subjects’ status and style back into the images. For example the ceramic and wooden lip plates that define a brides’ beauty, the Kalashnikov-bullet bracelets that signal wealth and the beads and pigments prized by the Hamer and Ebore. The formal ambiguity of these semi-sculptural works enables the viewer to consider both the space in which they stand and the space represented, allowing them I hope, a fleeting kind of encounter with the ever-transforming people of the Omo valley.