I went into the mall today. It’s way busier than normal and full of Chanel and Oroton stalls that instantly make me want to spend lots of money and take home a pristine, shiny box. The coffee shops have rolled out their Christmas cups to add a bit of festive cheer to our landfill (who am I kidding, I get over-the-top excited about Christmas coffee cups) and the shops have huge posters exhorting us to give. It’s only the third of December, but it feels like Christmas has already been around forever, and I’m feeling a weird mix of cynicism and excitement.
A couple of days ago the lovely Romy Sai Zunde pointed me in the direction of Hans Silvester’s photos of the Surma and Mursi tribes in the L’Omo Valley on the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan. These are nomadic tribes, who express their artistic creativity by decorating their bodies with pigments made from volcanic rock, flowers, leaves, grass, shells and animal horns. The beautiful images have stuck with me: the careful, elaborate self expression, the sheer joy of such exuberant adornment, the excitement of transfiguring found objects and vegetation into precious embellishment.
Maybe they’re so haunting because it’s precisely the moment in our year when the pressure to buy things is most acute. These images are a reminder that for us, beauty, self expression (and even the idea of demonstrating love) are heavily commodified – they’re wrapped up in plastic and mediated through big brands. Brands with a high stake in our dissatisfaction with ourselves, whose sole aim is to get us to buy more stuff – expensive, shiny, enticing stuff.
Of course I like putting on a bit of my Chanel lippie (it is lovely lipstick), but I can’t help but imagine a sense of freedom in these images that’s missing as we buckle down and rack up the credit card debt in preparation for another Christmas.
P.S. Hans Silvester’s book Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa would make a really lovely Christmas gift!