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Au naturel: When beauty doesn’t need a context

04/20/2010
By:

Steve Miller

Staff Writer

Flowers, snail shells, elephant dung—these aren’t the materials that first come to mind when thinking about fashion, but maybe when you think of the lower Omo River Valley region in Africa. Even in Western culture, these raw materials are questioning conventional perceptions of beauty and self-expression.

In today’s fashion world originality can be hard to come by. Often times it seems designers are driven by consumerism and season after season the same silhouettes, patterns and methods of construction are “reworked” in an effort to quickly present a collection to please the masses. And to top it off, these pieces are typically worn by 6-foot tall, 115-pound, white models. It makes the need to question society’s singular notion of beauty even more necessary. Without it, true self-expression is stifled and unconventional, yet equally admirable forms of beauty go unnoticed.

Nestled between the borders of Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan, the remote Omo region is home to over a dozen tribes; of these two in particular, the Surma and Mursi were used as inspiration for photographer Hans Silvester. In his book, “Natural Fashion Tribal Decorations from Africa,” Silvester photographed the tribe’s unique taste for body painting and extravagant decorations taken directly from nature. A bundle of grass effortlessly made into a headpiece, a handful of leaves strung together to form a necklace or dress, stones crushed to form vibrant pigments. The tribes utilize the environment around them — a plant, clay, Western items like rifle cartridges — to play out a multitude of decorative fantasies.

Here an individual’s flesh is seen as a blank canvas and with the absence of mirrors, each design portrays a sense of ultimate freedom and originality seldom seen in our own culture. By embracing the spontaneity of movement and doing what comes naturally these tribes create a world of ephemeral astounding beauty. It’s no surprise Western designers draw inspiration from these techniques.

Recently in an exhibition at London’s Tate gallery, a number of young British artists created pieces based on artist Chris Ofili’s Nigerian-inspired paintings. In this group, English shoe designer INSA created a pair of brightly colored 10-inch platform heels, incorporating elephant dung as raw material, often seen in Ofili’s work. The piece is entitled “Anything Goes When it Comes to (s)hoes” – a play on words from the Big Daddy Kane song “Pimpin Ain’t Easy,” referenced numerous times in Ofili’s paintings. Although the piece may seem strange, it’s remarkable how INSA found inspiration and created an interesting fashion piece from something as unappealing as elephant poop. Is the piece beautiful? That decision is up to the viewer, but you have to admit — it catches your eye.

“To produce these insane heels, INSA retraced the footsteps Chris Ofili made over 15 years ago and sourced dung from the same family of elephants that produced the dung used in Chris’s infamous paintings of the nineties,” stated art and culture magazine Juxtapoz. “Using similar techniques and materials: beading, resin and painting, INSA pays homage to the style and significance of Ofili’s early work.”

Other artists including barrier-breaking Japanese fashion designer Junya Watanabe’s spring 2009 Ready to Wear collection exemplified the ethereal escapism present in other African-inspired art. Giant head wraps, flowers and colorful clashing prints made their way down the runway. Wanatabe’s mix of his own signature draping style mixed with patchwork denim skirts and wrapped sandals created a very organic feel.

Although the visual similarities in all of these different fashion mediums are apparent, it is the central message that proves the most powerful. Whether it’s the distant regions of the African safari, a London art gallery, or on the runway in Paris, natural fashion has proven to be a powerful, medium source for inspiration and an alternate view into the world of beauty.

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