Engikaret Profiles

Rushell Kwong
Curated by Jonathan Shirland
BDR Gallery
September 3 - January 9/2015





Engikaret Profiles: Maasai Photographs by Rushell Kwong

The Maasai (literally ‘Speakers of Maa’) are the most famous East African pastoralists, located in Kenya and Northern Tanzania. They probably migrated from the Nile Valley region in the 16th Century; although ethnic boundaries amongst the 120+ ‘tribes’ of Tanzania are famously fluid, they remain important loci of identity. Considered fearsome warriors by nineteenth century colonialists, Maasai are well-known today partly because of their distinctive body arts (plaid cloth, coiffures, and elaborate jewelry), and partly because they live near famous game reserves including the Serengeti. Their traditional lands have been dramatically reduced in size over the last 150 years, notably by the British in 1904 who evicted them from about 60% of their territory in Kenya; Maasai in Tanzania were displaced in the 1940s from fertile lands around Ngorongoro, but have recently re-settled near the crater.

Maasai are the subject of innumerable photographs, their way of life deemed fascinating in its exotic ‘otherness’. Yet Rushell’s works balance the visual drama of bright fabric against alluvial backdrop with human sensitivity. Topographic contours of wrinkle and scar suffused with dust are captivating but they remain frames for the sensation of eye contact with the extended family members of one homestead – the Mamas, Morani (warriors), Elders, Layoni (young boys)… BSU students have visited different communities in Engikaret over the past six years, working with Maasai experts John Chaka and Patrick Dazzle. These photographs are from Peter’s Boma. His immediate family members are Kilaye, Londoye, Lesikar, Salimu, Lerusai, Naapi and Lengere. He owns 10 cows, 12 goats, and 11 sheep.

Engikaret is located 50 kilometers from Arusha heading towards Namanga. The area is a large plateau full of acacia trees 1400 meters above sea level, situated at the base of Mt. Meru. Engikaret is also encircled by Mt. Longido and Mt. Kilimanjaro - the ‘rooftop of Africa’. Unimpeded views of the three mountains enhance the austere beauty of the terrain. Engikaret is a refuge for birds (Masked Weaver, Ostrich, Guinea fowl, Kori Bustard, Silver bill, Secretary Bird, Red Barbet, Sunbirds) and mammals (Gerenuk, Lesser Kudu, Klipspringer, Zebra, Giraffe, Gazelle, Impala, Silver-backed Jackal).

Maasai culture is structured by strict principles of politeness; correct greetings matter and it can seem impenetrable initially. Yet within hours stories, songs, dances and customs are shared and friendships formed. It is testament to the richness and rootedness of Maasai values, especially in the face of rapid change and shrinking resources, that so much human exchange is facilitated in a couple of days. Of course these few photographs cannot adequately convey the experience of visiting Engikaret, but they do allow you to see its value.

-Jonathan Shirland


Engikaret Profiles: Artist's Statement

I am not pretending to be a National Geographic photographer. I would never have the guts to be away from my daughters for long periods of time, much less haul any more camera gear. But I did promise to take many photographs of my experiences in Tanzania so that I had pictures to go with the stories and images for those moments that are just too hard to put into words. My interest in the Maasai started with this study tour. I have indulged in many conversations over how much technology governs our daily lives, fighting with my kids to look up from their devices. I have listened to friends, family, and politicians argue about our culture of excessive consumption, both of natural and manmade resources. We may do our part in recycling, reducing, and conserving, but in the end, it is difficult to resist the temptations of 21st century advanced capitalism and the processes of globalization.

Visiting Peter’s boma and meeting his family was a life lesson, as they are no strangers to centuries long struggle with change.  I wanted to see, hear, touch and feel, even for just a moment, what their life is like. I knew the Maasai way of life was rooted deep in tradition, but I could not help noticing evidence of the modern world creeping through the thorny perimeters of their villages. There were simple things: shards of wine bottles incorporated into the cow dung plastered walls of their homes to let light through; metal caps from soda bottles used to decorate exterior walls; a rusting old Ford tailgate serving as a gate to a goat pen; tartan patterned synthetic socks paired with ingenious sandals made out of old car tires; and not so simple items like cell phones replete with Shakira ringtones. Still, their values seem to remain true to Maasai cultural heritage (however hard that is to pin down). They were welcoming and gracious hosts, happy to show us how to make beaded jewelry, throw spears, build fires, and milk goats. We sang, danced, and played competitive clapping games long into the night under a dazzling star-filled sky. Despite the language barrier, I am amazed at the connections we made and the things I learned.

-Rushell Kwong