“Another important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.”
― Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Hans Silvester has been at it now for over fifty years: an intrepid traveler and fervent environmentalist who is ever contrasting other cultures with his own through his camera lens. His wide-ranging oeuvre of photography takes in studies of various regions around the world, including chronicles of France, Central America, Japan, Portugal, Egypt, Tunisia, Hungary, Peru, Italy and Spain.
Opening at the Galerie Pascal Laine this week, Silvester reveals his recent anthropological etude in southern Ethiopia in a series of hauntingly beautiful images of the colorfully decorated houses of the Bench. He envisions his immersion into the lives and tradition of the Ethiopian tribes as an effort to “save…as much as possible of a truly living art, which is subject to infinite variation, and whose constituent elements form a link between man and nature.”
Silvester’s work has been exhibited at Marlborough Gallery, New York (2010, 2009); Marlborough Gallery, Monaco (2010, 2009); and Polka Galerie, Paris, France (2009). His work is the subject of almost 50 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).
The Bench is an ethnic group of farmers living 350 miles south of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, in a mountainous terrain at altitudes ranging from 4000 to 9,000 feet. In a tropical climate, the Bench cultivates bananas, mangoes, and coffee, with a diet based on corn and sorghum.
They live in grass-covered huts built with wood and earth mixed with cow dung. A number of the houses are painted on the outside and inside with natural colors are nearby. There are very few villages – the Bench reside in isolated houses or in small hamlets. The interior of the simple huts is divided into two parts: half for the family and one for the livestock: cows, sheep, goats, chickens.
The farmers produce their own food. With very little surplus to sell, the lack of income and their isolation engenders an impoverished existence where the family income is around $100 a year.
As the largest ethnic group in the zone, the Bench have their own language with very few speaking Amaric, the official language of Ethiopia. Communication is hindered by the lack of roads, the only one runs from Addis Ababa to the regional capital Mizan, which is the only city in the territory. Only about 7% of inhabitants have electricity. Of Christian faith, the Bench does not practice contraception and the number of children per women is ten, or more.
Women and daughters decorate some of the huts in colorful patterns, retouching the décor twice a year. As the huts are dispersed throughout the rugged terrain and miles from roads, it takes an effort to reach them.
Exhibit: Hans Silvester, Photographs – “Les maisons des Benchs en Ethiopie”; April 12 to May 14, Vernissage Saturday, April 12 from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Galerie Pascal Lainé, Rue Sainte Barbe in the center of Ménerbes. Tel: 04-90-72-48-30, Website
Hours: Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.