For no strangers, we're partnered with our friends over at SHFT who put together this great video about the exhibit. The 3-minute piece featured curatorial advisor Wade Davis as well as Angela Fisher & Carol Beckwith, Chris Rainier, Thomas Kelly and Aaron Huey. Click above to watch it now.
Saturday, February 9th, 2013
Friday, December 14th, 2012
© Thomas Kelly
By Thomas Kelly
The Nyinba (the word means “people of the sunny valley”) migrated into the vertical mountainous forested sanctuary of Nepal’s northwestern Himalayas from the Tibetan plateau steppe Zhangzhung kingdom over 15,000 years ago. The Zhangzhung kingdom’s capitol was located near the sacred peak of Mt. Kailash, believed to be the axis mundi of the universe, where heaven and earth meet for Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bon. They brought with them a richly developed cultural heritage of this ancient Bon culture reflected in their unique dress.
My wife and I spent several years among the Nyinba, who practice polyandry, the custom where one woman marries all the brothers in a family. “You mean you don’t share your wife with your brother?” I remember Sherzoom asking me incredulous. Traditional shoes are left outside the bedroom door to indicate who is with the wife. The photo above is of the bride’s female relatives who each hold willow branches in their hands. They are re-enacting opera-fashion the wedding of the Chinese Princess Wen Chen Konjo to Srongtsen Gampo in the 8th century. They sing clever riddles like, “What lives at the bottom of the sea and carries his home on his back?” The groomsmen are required to answer their questions in order to win the bride.
The perak, the headdress shaped like a cobra’s head and studded with turquoise, is found throughout Ladakh and the Nyinba are the furthest east community to wear them. Worn now only for ceremonial occasions, these heirloom pieces were traditionally worn by women even in the fields so that they could escape invading armies with the family jewels. Wearing enormous gaus-portable altars of silver and gold stuffed with magical sacred mantras of protection, and large amber necklaces, the women symbolize wealth itself—the wealth of fertility and offspring. The coral is considered heating, feminine and is believed to arouse fertility. The turquoise is considered cooling and masculine and together they balance and protect health. These heirloom pieces are worn and passed down generation to generation. No Tethys Sea (Tibetan plateau) coral exists anymore except in these treasured necklaces. The turquoise is believed to absorb harm-protecting the wearer from misfortune. (Said to come when divine sheep scratch the heavenly cloud floors upon which they graze, causing turquoise to tumble from the sky.) Long necklaces made from shell from the Bay of Bengal dangle down beyond their waists, many wearing cowrie studded belts. Cowrie was once traded throughout Afghanistan and northern India as a form of money. Victorian coins are strung into necklaces, the women wear handwoven gowns, rainbows decorate the Nyinba women’s shoulders and cuffs-symbolizing them as rainbow body dakinis in living form.
The gowns, dyed from plants, and decorated with tie-dyed suns symbolizing the name of who they are: Nyinba—people of the sunny valley.
Polyandry is dissolving after the Maoist conflict which attracted many of the young single women to join. Sonam, the oldest groom of this marriage, ran off and left the bride with his younger brothers. Tourism and the death of the salt and wool trade route has changed the ancient triadic economies of the Nyinba in which each brother would contribute to the family pot and share a wife. My wife was amongst the very women in this photograph just last month on a women’s health medical expedition. While their reproductive health challenges continue with the majority of child-bearing women having had at least one infant death, they are still singing their songs, their voices filled with pride, still wearing their unique dress, these rainbow body Bonpo protector dakinis.
Thursday, November 15th, 2012
© Thomas Kelly, Kayapo Dance
By Thomas Kelly
Sexual activity is regarded among the Kayapo as a natural and desired part of life. Rules regarding sexual activities are complex and vary between different sex and age groups; sexual faithfulness is a matter of individual choice rather than a common rule. "There are those men who do not like their women to be with someone else; there are others who do not mind," says Kwyra Ka. "Those who do not mind stay together, those who mind separate." It is a normal custom for Kayapo Indians to marry, split up and remarry several times, and as a rule chiefs have several sexual partners at the same time. Gorotire, Xingu Reserve, Brazilian Amazon.
In 1991, activist Anita Roddick founder of The Body Shop International, U.K. asked me to join her to document their fair-trade practices with the Kayapo Indians deep in the Brazilian Amazon with hopes the Kayapo wouldn’t surrender to outside pressure to sell out to gold miners, cattle rangers and forest destruction.
We arrived in time for a ceremonial dance; the deafening sounds of wooden clubs beating against the central hut pillars by chiefs and warriors resounded through the moist air and within minutes I was focusing head on at a procession of freshly painted Kayapo women- plucked of their eyebrows, faces painted with red arucum seed paste, macaw parrot feathers in their hair, red and blue beads strung down to their waist and thighs, beads adorned their calves and ankles. I had a Canon F-1and 85mm 1.2 fixed lense loaded with Tri-x B&W film. After the dance, I set up a back drop at the ceremonial hut and had the extra-ordinary priviledge to make portraits of all the dancers. I spent the next ten days documenting the day and the life of the Kayapo.
Their seamless living in harmony with nature, uninterrupted by outside forces, afforded a way of life which supported their cultural values.
I remember being awe-struck and not a little envious at the time of the Kayapo’s ease with their natural nakedness deep in the Amazon, and feeling awkward and overdressed in shorts in a shirt. That didn’t last long. After the ceremony, a gaggle of women laughing, hauled Anita and I over into a hut and stripped off our clothes and painted us naked. They were curious about our body hair and made comments about it. They painfully plucked off our eyebrow, eyelash, and pubic hair. “That’s ugly,”they said. ”Now you are one of us.” They took Anita off into the forest and wrapped her waist with the root of a vine. Paikhan the chief turned to me and said, “You can take any woman you want now.” It makes me sad to think that very few Kayapo are likely walking around the village naked anymore. I guess this is considered progress, but I am not so sure. Like Octavio Paz who advocates the plurality of being as the very spice and color of life, what happens to us as humans when we start to wear clothes?
What is it we are concealing or what are we ashamed of? I loved their ease of being in their own natural skin. The Body Shop International created a Brazilain nut oil extraction business at source cutting out middle men and gave a cash injection that allowed the Kayapo to use the cash in whatever way they choose.