With flamboyant make up of vibrant yellows, earthy reds and bright whites, outlandish accessories and elaborate headwear, it’s easy to picture these images originating from the catwalks of New York, London or Paris.

Inspired by the exotic flowers, trees and vegetation of the land bordering Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan, these designs are the creations of the Surma tribes of the Omo Valley in East Africa.

Leaves and roots are transformed into accessories, necklaces of banana leaves are scarves, grasses, feathers and flowers are their fascinators.

Zebra skins are leggings, snail shells make jewelry and clay is used to stick the creations together – an entire wardrobe provided by Mother Nature.

Since the scope of recorded history, fifteen tribes have lived in the region.

Photo credit: Giordano Cipriani, www.giordanocipriani.com

The nomadic people are self-decorators, all without the use of a mirror; they adorn themselves every day with natural paints, wild flowers, grasses, fruits, nuts and berries.

The tradition stems from hunting preparations, but also serves a practical form, to protect the people from insects and the sun’s harsh gaze.

While the homeland of the Surma and Mursi is a breeding ground of the arms and ivory trades, with much time dedicated to tribal and guerilla warfare, the people manage to create an African fashion like no other, celebrating themselves and their environment.

German photographer Hans Silvester has visited the unstable region over 12 times, capturing not the war and destruction, but the beauty of the tribes’ natural fashion in these images.

“They can take any material from the plant world – leaf, stem, flower, grass, root – and instantly transform it into an accessory straight from a fairy tale, without the slightest tinge of absurdity,” he said when his book was launched in 2008.

Accompanied by a driver, cook and guide, Silvester spent month-long stays with the isolated tribes.

He says several times a day, all members of the tribe decorate themselves. “They take a stone from a river bank, where they usually hold painting sessions, and they turn it into a palette,” he said.

Photo credit: Giordano Cipriani, www.giordanocipriani.com

Because the tribes do not possess mirrors, Silvester observed “an image of oneself can only be constructed through the eyes of others”.

He likens the practice to be of almost religious importance, an essential aspect of expression and is committed to documenting and preserving the traditional fashion.

Silvester describes his immersion into the lives of the Surma and Mursi people as an effort to save “as much as possible of this truly living art, which is mobile, changing, subject to infinite variation, and whose constituent elements form a link between man and nature”.

“You’re reminded again how beautiful a seed pod, a mushroom or a flower is,” he said.

Photo credit: Giordano Cipriani, www.giordanocipriani.com

In order to create their unearthly beauty, the tribes people paint their bodies with hues of red, ochre, yellow, white, green and grey – coming from crushed rocks.

The colours are applied to the skins with fingers or reed brushes, making astonishing patterns of stars, dots and animal markings. Silvester says there is no need for a particular occasion or festival; the people “simply paint themselves for no particular reason and at no particular time”.

The Surma and Mursi seem to have particular instincts for creating striking accessories.

“They make their choices spontaneously… A lump of clay stuck on top of the head and pierced with a feather becomes a masterpiece of the milliner’s art,” Silvester said.

But Silvester fears for the unique culture of the tribes, believing the damage from civil and tribal warfare will pale in comparison to the havoc international tourism could pose to the nomadic people.

“Just like the Native Americans, the Nuba, the Maasai and many other minorities who live in close proximity to nature, they will in due course have to resign themselves to living in reservations,” he said.

Silvester’s work has been exhibited in New York, Monaco, France and is the subject of almost 50 books.

His most recent book is Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008).




Photo Credits: Hans Silvestre and Giordano Cipriani

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