African Twilights: The Vanishing Rituals and Ceremonies of the African Continent
By Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher
Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru (28 January 2019)
Never before have I seriously considered spending Ksh20,000 on a book, even if it combines two volumes in one. But I may have to pay by installments for ‘African Twilight: The Vanishing Rituals and Ceremonies of the African Continent,’ which is being officially launched March 3rd at African Heritage House where it’s co-author-photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher will be in attendance.
Normally, I’d think it an extravagance to buy such a high-priced book, especially such a heavy one as the 872 page tome. But for someone who appreciates African culture and especially African aesthetics, I realize there will never be a more revealing book published about sub-continental ceremonies, rituals, rites of passage and religions than Beckwith and Fisher’s remarkable visual archive of indigenous African cultures.
African Twilight features 93 ceremonies witnessed in 26 countries. What’s more, it recently won the United Nations Award for Excellence in 2018 for its ‘vision and understanding of the role of cultural traditions in the pursuit of world peace.’
Beckwith and Fisher are two women photographers, one originally a painter, the other a jewelry designer, who met right here in Nairobi in 1978. Both had a spirit of adventure, a love of African aesthetics, an empathy and appreciation of the people, and skills which led to their becoming pioneering documentary photographers.
For the last four decades, they have been crisscrossing the continent where they’ve witnessed and photographed incredibly beautiful performance art events. In the process, they’ve recorded Africans’ boundless creativity expressed in their costumes, jewelry, body art (including body painting and scarification), dance rituals and ceremonies. They’ve also produced beautiful books like ‘Africa Adorned’, ‘Nomads of Niger’ and ‘African Ark’.
But since their publishing ‘African Ceremonies’ in 1999, they realized the region was changing so rapidly, they felt compelled to embark on the 15 year project which resulted in ‘African Twilight’. Noting that nearly 50 percent of the ceremonies they recorded in 1999 have either vanished or become ‘unrecognizable,’ the two chose to journey deeper into otherwise inaccessible corners of the region to meet people whose cultures were still intact.
As such, the book succeeds in creating a visual archive of the exceptional diversity, beauty and dignity of African cultural ceremonies ranging from those related to initiation, rites of passage, courtship, and marriage to African kingdoms, spiritual practices and death.
For years, we’ve seen books bemoaning ‘vanishing Africa,’ but Beckwith’s and Fisher’s images are not mournful, voyeuristic or clichéd. Instead, they’ve taken an almost anthropological approach by getting to know their subjects, including the values their ceremonies reflect. So while the book is primarily photographic, the captions are informative, contextual and respectful of what their images signify.
In the book’s introduction, the British-Ghanaian architect, Sir David Adjaye writes of how he shares the photographers’ purpose “to expand and enrich the world’s understanding of the rich cultural tapestry of Africa.” I too appreciate the sentiment.