To those who fall under Africa’s spell, who catch that well-known malady “le mal d’Afrique”, the sickness for which there is no known cure, the names of Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher are ones to conjure with. For some 40 years, they have been travelling together all over Africa, photographing the rituals, ceremonies and traditions of its myriad peoples. They met in Kenya in 1978 and discovered to their mutual joy and astonishment that they had each found a kindred soul, somebody else who was moved and fascinated by the complexity and richness of African lives and who wanted to spend their own lives recording “the most important ceremonies and rituals that moved African peoples through life from birth to death”. Each seemed intuitively to have had a sense of urgency, as if they knew that the world that so entranced them was fragile and fast disappearing.
That they met at all was chance. They had come from opposite ends of the earth: Beckwith was a painter on a scholarship from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; Fisher, from Adelaide, Australia, had gone to Kenya for the sheer adventure of it and then become obsessed by tribal jewellery, collecting and photographing it around the continent. Introduced by Fisher’s brother, they were down in Tanzania photographing a Maasai warrior ceremony together within a week of meeting.
Since then, they have produced 17 books between them. Each has also published a couple on their own: Fisher, for instance, had produced her wonderful photographic record of tribal jewellery, Africa Adorned, before she met Beckwith. Until now, African Ceremonies, published in 1999, was their seminal work, covering, as it does, 93 ceremonies from 26 countries. It earned them a United Nations Award for Excellence for “vision and understanding of the role of cultural traditions in the pursuit of world peace”. But on November 6, probably their most important book, the two-volume African Twilight, will be published. While African Ceremonies covered the rituals that help African peoples on their passage through life from birth to death, with African Twilight they wanted to “cover things we hadn’t photographed before and to go deeper into areas we had visited before”.
The first volume deals with initiation ceremonies, with courtship and marriage and the passage of the seasons, and the second with their visits into royal kingdoms and Africans’ engagement with the spirit world, ending with death and the afterlife. “For many Africans,” says Beckwith, “the spiritual world is still very much alive. For the Betsileo people of Madagascar, for instance, there seems to be no boundary between the living and the dead and, when we were talking to them, we could never be sure if they were talking about people who were dead or alive. While we in the west seem to have lost that immediate sense of the spirit world, for many African societies it is still a vivid part of their daily lives.” They also wanted “to go back in time – to feature the rites and ceremonies of some of the oldest cultures in the world, those of the hunter-gatherers and pastoralists who live along Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, as well as many others”.
Possibly the most intriguing of all the cultures featured in African Twilight are the sacred mask ceremonies of the Kuba kingdom deep in the Congo. It took Fisher and Beckwith 12 years to organise their visit and only a chance meeting with a relative of the king – without whose presence the sacred masks of the creator gods can never be taken out of the forest – allowed them to capture these rituals in greater depth and detail than ever before (between the 1940s and ’70s, a famous recorder of African cultures, Eliot Elisofon, chronicled something of the Kuba culture). As Beckwith puts it: “Seeing these rare and powerful masks coming out of the forest and witnessing the dance and rituals that accompany them was like walking through a doorway into the ancient past.” For Fisher, much of the fascination lies in the fact that “Africa is full of such different cultures, and these very sophisticated royal kingdoms all had highly developed idiosyncratic cultures, with masks playing a crucial role. They are often the intermediary between the ancestors and those still living their everyday lives.”
Very early on, they decided they would both take photographs and they wouldn’t credit them individually – they would simply use whichever they both thought was the best or most appropriate image. Wherever they go, they tread with great delicacy, well aware that they are white women from completely different cultures, but they see their work as a tribute to the richness and importance of African lives. They believe they are documenting these cultures for all mankind: “Africa, after all, is where we all began,” says Fisher. And when one learns that around 40 per cent of the rites and ceremonies they have photographed have disappeared into the mists of history, it makes their work seem even more precious.
Donald Johanson, the paleoanthropologist most famous for discovering “Lucy”, the fossil of a female hominid australopithecus, once told me: “African peoples will perhaps look back someday and be enriched by these visual records of their own rituals and traditions, which have been preserved for all time.”
Fisher and Beckwith’s photographs are hauntingly beautiful, often very moving and always poignant, because they are visual reminders of the power still evident in many African cultures. Much has been lost but what is left is to be cherished.
Their archive now needs a proper home. There are more than half a million photographs, covering more than 150 African societies, as well as many hours of video and 200 charmingly illustrated and carefully annotated journals. All of these pay vital tribute to humanity’s deep yearning for the ceremonies and rituals that feed our inner lives. For those interested in understanding more about African culture and what it has to contribute to modern lives, African Twilight offers a compelling insight.