African Twilight: A gift to the world

Cameroon elephant mask with feather headdress of the kind Mickey Ragos wore in shows around the world /ANGELA FISHER AND CAROL BECKWITH
Cameroon elephant mask with feather headdress of the kind Mickey Ragos wore in shows around the world /ANGELA FISHER AND CAROL BECKWITH

African Twilight, a magnificent two-volume opus in its own boxed cover, is a gift to the world.

The latest book by an unlikely pair of photographers captures African rituals and ceremonies, many never shared with the world before, and many which will never be performed again. Thus, the photographers have accomplished what no one can ever do again, through their 17 books produced during their rigorous travels across the African continent, seeking out age-old rituals that have escaped the impending globalisation that in time will devour them.

The pair are unlikely in several ways. First, they are both women: Carol Beckwith, from a sheltered background in Swampscott Massachusetts, USA, and Angela Fisher, born and educated in Australia. Perhaps the fact that they are women and thus not viewed as threatening by the people they encounter has allowed them to accomplish what no others have.

Secondly, both of them only took up their singular pursuit of photography as their main medium of expression after arriving in Africa.

Third, they were often told they could not go or do what they have done, and it was only through their decades of fierce determination to overcome any obstacles that they yielded a cache of over half a million rare photographs of ceremonies and cultures, for which they are now seeking a refuge or archives to safeguard them for posterity.

Book cover

OVERCAME ODDS

To say that their quest posed a logistical challenge is a vast understatement. Many rituals in Africa do not conform to any calendar. They usually take place at the times of planting, harvesting, initiation, age-grade ceremonies, funerals and burials, weddings, and births. Some rituals take place only at auspicious times of the moon, and thus are

maybe held only every 12 years. Others occur only after rains to make sure that herds can be gathered from far afield, or that there will be a bountiful harvest to assure an ample supply of beer and meat for the crowds who will trek for days from afar.

Beckwith and Fisher

demonstrated the knowledge, skills

and

intimacy necessary to become deeply acquainted with their subjects.

Sadly enough, the majority of the rituals and ceremonies they have photographed over nearly a half-century have now vanished.

Dorothy in a finale costume of elaborate beadwork from the Maasai of Kenya and the Dinka of Sudan /ARTHUR BELEBEAU

The results of their most recent l8-year treks across the continent, seeking out and documenting age-old ceremonies, will be celebrated during the Gala Night of the Century at African Heritage House on March 3, when the double-volume opus African Twilight will be launched at African Heritage House.

Some 400 guests will board the train at the Railway Museum at 2.30pm on March 3 and disembark at the African Heritage 45 minutes later. There, they will find a spectacular carnival of cuisine by the leading hotels of Nairobi and the Carnivore as well as entertainment by top musicians. Beckwith and Fisher will start the show with a presentation of their life’s work, and be on hand to sign books.

Karo warrior with painted body and human hair headdress with feathers, S Ethiopia

ROYAL KINGDOMS

This book has inspired me to come out of semi-retirement after a long illness to present a show of Royal Kingdoms and Vanishing Textiles, after spending the last several months rehabilitating the collection of costumes and fashions now owned by Makena Mwiraria.

The show will commence with authentic costumes and fashions created from the handwoven and handprinted fabrics from Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Madagascar, Congo, South Africa, Niger, Ethiopia and a grand Kenya finale.

Catherine Karl, the longest-reigning head model of African Heritage, will return to lead the show once more from Germany, where she models. Mickey Ragos, the perennial Mr Kenya who was the head male model for African Heritage for 22 years, will be a Guest of Honour, along with former Miss Africa from Kenya, Khadija Adam.

Dorothy in the last design by Alan Donovan before African Heritage closed its doors in 2003. It is cotton kikoi with a cape worn with WaKamba beadwork /ARTHUR BELEBEAU

Both were stars of the show at the Twelfth Night of African Heritage in l984, which launched Angela Fisher’s magnificent first book, Africa Adorned, after which Khadija went straight from the African Heritage catwalk to become the first lead model for famous couturier Yves St Laurent in Paris.

They will be joined by male models, with Marcus Ogutu replacing Mr Kenya as head male model, acrobats, dancers and stilt walkers among others. Several photos which appear here were by famous French photographer Arthur Belebeau.

Tickets for the Gala Night of The Century can be reserved by sending an email to [email protected]

They are also available at the African Twilight Nights at the Hotel Intercontinental since January 24, or from Nairobi Serena, the Ole Serena Hotel or Carnivore after February 3.

Tickets for groups over l0 will be Sh7,000 and under l0 will be Sh7,500. All proceeds will go to rehabilitation and maintaining the Murumbi legacy in Kenya and the African Heritage House, based on pre-colonial architecture, now a national monument.

Bapende dancer in DRC /ANGELA FISHER AND CAROL BECKWITH​

For more information, visit www.africanheritagehouse.info