What you need to know:
- The all-colour coffee table-top book, ‘Africa Adorned’ set off fireworks internationally when it came out in 1984.
- No one before Fisher had entered so deeply into African cultures to capture the exceptional beauty and decorative elegance.
- No one before her had revealed the extent to which Africans decorated themselves.
In Nairobi, to celebrate the 37th anniversary of the publication of her seminal book, Africa Adorned on February 14th, the Australian photographer, Angela Fisher also met up with the man, Alan Donovan, who introduced her to the fellow photographer, who would become her best friend and co-author of 17 more books on African ceremonies and culture, Carol Beckwith.
Venetian glass and hand-beaded corsets
The all-colour coffee table-top book, Africa Adorned set off fireworks internationally when it came out in 1984. No one before Fisher had entered so deeply into African cultures to capture the exceptional beauty and decorative elegance of the Dinka, Rendille, Gabra, Kuba, Fulani and Ashanti peoples. No one before her had revealed the extent to which Africans decorated themselves in everything from gold, Venetian glass and hand-beaded corsets to cowrie shells, peacock feathers, and elegant hand-woven textiles.
But having studied cultural anthropology in University and worked closely for several years with the Aborigines, before coming to Kenya in the early 1970s, Angela was prepared initially to travel up north with fellow Aussies, collecting artifacts which would form the basis of her first craft exhibition in Nairobi at the African Heritage Pan-African Gallery in the mid-70s.
“I was already in Nairobi when my brother called and asked if I wanted to travel across the continent with him,” recalls Angela who was just beginning her build up her photographic skills at the time.
Having acquired a ‘wander lust’ from her step-father who used to take her camping under the stars as a child, Angela has always been keen on traveling. But to obtain enough material for her book, she would ultimately crisscross the region three times, and then head off to London, first to write a story for National Geographic and then to find the right publisher who would treat her images and texts with special care.
Africa Adorned has been out of print for the last few years. But hopefully, it is being reprinted soon. In the meantime, Angela and Carol met up at African Heritage and soon agreed to start working together. Both had a passion for exploring and documenting all they could find related to African rituals and ceremonies. Both had an awareness of how rapidly lives are changing all across the region, even to the extent that whole ceremonies, traditions, and skills could disappear as Western notions of modernity overtook and quashed age-old norms and values, just as we are seeing today in Kenya.
Amazingly, the two women might never have met but for a serendipitous set of circumstances on either side. Angela might have remained in Australia except that she had grown disillusioned with the way her government was treating the Aboriginese.
I found myself watching a documentary on the Maasai
“I found myself watching a documentary on the Maasai, and it took me no time to quit my job, board a plane and fly to Kenya to meet the Maasai in person,” says Angela.
Meanwhile, Carol had been a Master’s student at the prestigious Boston Museum of Fine Art where she had won a two-year fellowship to study and travel.
“I went to Japan to study Zen calligraphy for a year, then to Burma and Cambodia, and almost as an afterthought, I stopped off in Kenya,” she says.
Then if Carol hadn’t taken that hot-air balloon ride with Angela’s brother, Simon, she might not have been advised to meet the sister, who he said would get on beautifully with Carol. And he was correct.
The two met up at African Heritage Garden where Carol had already been painting and beautifying Mr. Donovan’s wall with African designs. She already had produced one book of her own on the Maasai even as Angela was still in the process of getting Africa Adorned published.
But now 45 years later, the two have traveled over 300,000 miles together crisscrossing the continent. “We have been to 45 countries, and worked with 150 different cultural groups across the region,” says Carol whose last joint effort with Angela, their ‘African Twilight’ double-volume was formally launched a year and a half ago at African Heritage House during a big gala night attended by the Minister of Sports, Culture and Heritage, Amb. Dr Amina Mohamed.
Currently, the two photographers share a three story house in London, which is close to their publisher. “Carol has the ground floor and I have the top, and with our studio in between, it’s a perfect fit,” says Angela who’s still in Kenya, making a film with Carol on life in the bush.