The Directors of Marlborough Gallery are pleased to announce that an exhibition of work by noted photographer Hans Silvester will open at Marlborough Chelsea, 545 West 25th Street, New York, on September 12 and continue through October 11, 2008. This is Silvester’s first exhibition with Marlborough and will feature thirty-five photographs of the extraordinary body paintings of the people of the Surma and Mursi tribes who live in the Omo Valley of Southern Ethiopia.
The people of the Surma and Mursi tribes are body painters: they paint their bodies with pigments made from the earth as an immemorial
and quotidian practice – mothers paint babies, children and adults paint themselves and each other in a tradition that seems unchanged for thousands of years. Their paintings range from abstract designs of circles, lines, dots and swirls, sometimes focused on specific body parts, to all-over patterns of flowers, zig-zags and fingerprints that form a dazzling array on the entire body. White, yellow, orange and ochre; the natural pigments that they use are derived from the soil and rocks of their surroundings. The tribes’ daily paintings are an essential expression of their lives – more elemental to them than music or dance. Fascinated by the Surma and Mursi tribes’ painting practices and astounded by the beauty of their ephemeral art, Silvester captures the diverse and extraordinary effects that they achieve through their ancient tradition.
Silvester’s photographs are at once intimate and overtly active, both about the human need for expression and the seemingly endlessly
creative way that people can achieve this with the most basic of elements. The works in the exhibition will depict the body paintings of men, women and youths and range from Les Peuples de L’Omo: No. 11, 2007 (C-print, edition of ten, 39 3/8 x 26 3/8, 100 x 67 cm), an image of a nude young man whose entire torso, arms and legs become the palette for large banded curves and grids of white to Les Peuples de L’Omo: No. 19, 2007 (C-print, 21 5/8 x 14 3/8, 55 x 36.5 cm) which captures a shimmering field of stars, like an abstracted celestial map, painted across a man’s torso. A particularly engaging photograph is Les Peuples de L’Omo: No. 22, 2007 (C-print, edition of ten, 27 3/8 x 39 3/8, 69.5 x 100 cm), in which the viewer is confronted by the sharp gaze of a young man whose shaved head and face are painted in white stripes from cranium to chin.
Les Peuples de L’Omo: No. 2, 2005 (C-print, edition of ten, 26 1/2 x 39 3/8, 67.2 x 100 cm) is a closely-cropped image of the torso a young man laying on the rough surface of a fallen tree. One arm rests on his hip, painted from wrist to shoulder in an interlaced screen of circles and dabs that continue across his chest, stomach and down his thighs. These joyful marks form a daisy chain that literally resembles the orange, yellow and white flowers of the Leucanthemum x superbum genus, a remarkable show of painterly exuberance that seems to celebrate both the beauty of flora and the young man’s sinuous form.
For Silvester, his immersion into the lives of the Surma and the Mursi tribes is about discovery, connection and preservation. As a photographer long concerned with the state of the environment and the world, he has a personal stake in his photographs. He described his work with the Surmas and the Mursis, “…what’s most important for me is saving, in some way, as much as possible of this truly living art, which is mobile, changing, subject to infinite variation, and whose constituent elements are simple and form a link between man and nature. It seems to me that our modern painting found the purpose of these elements, this simplicity, and used it as its foundation.”
Silvester’s series of photographs, Les Peuples de L’Omo, were published in book form by Editions de La Martinière, Paris, in 2006 and in the following year in an English edition by Harry N. Abrams Inc. This publication was honored as the Photography Book of the Year at the festival La Nuit du Livre in Paris that same year. A selection of photographs from the series was exhibited in numerous venues in France, including at Fondation Jean-Paul Blachère, Boulogne-sur-Mer in 2006, and the prestigious Fondation Yves Rocher Festival Photo, Gacilly, in 2007.
Born in 1938 in Lorrach, Germany, and based in southern France, Silvester is recognized for a wide-ranging oeuvre and a protracted
study of his subjects, most frequently nature, animals and the environment. His work is the subject of almost fifty books, including a photo essay on Camargue in 1960, a well-regarded documentation of Europe’s nature preserves in 1982 and a series of books on Provence published throughout the 1990s. His most recent book is Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008).
An illustrated catalogue will be available at the time of the exhibition.