naked bodies and hearts
beautiful AFRICA FEATURE
beautiful AFRICA #02
naked bodies and hearts
Africa first attracted me when I saw the Maasai on television as a five-year-old.
It was a little later when I learned that these were the Maasai. They wore blue clothing and necklaces, and they were so intriguing that I couldn’t take my
eyes off them. This impression led me to become who I am now.
Until I was ten, the Maasai consumed my heart and mind. I honestly believed one day I would become Maasai. For some reason, I thought there was a button everyone had that, when pushed, would turn my skin dark. I shocked my parents one day when I asked when my skin would change color. They responded, which was my first setback, explaining that no matter how hard I try Maasai are Africans and that I am not. I realized my skin color would never change. I was distraught to the point of physically shaking.
Once I calmed down, I began to think: If I couldn’t become African, I at least want to meet them, which elicited icy responses from those around me. To my dismay, my preoccupation with Africa and Africans bothered many around me. I would say, “Africans are cool,” and people had a hard time with that, denying me my heroes. Those who knew little of these heroes were quick to disparage them. My frustration was mounting, and I was determined to do something about it. My proclamations continued, but it was more than ten years before I did anything about them.
Then, at twenty-three, I visited Africa in 2009. I had been working as an illustrator for two years and had hit a slump. It was time to do something new, and Africa was calling. So, I went to a travel agency that specialized in African travel destinations. My first would be Ethiopia. In retrospect, I’m pleased this was the first place I visited.
I didn’t put too much thought into the trip because a local would be guiding me. I didn’t even speak English back then. About the only words I was able to render were, “How are you?” And, “I’m fine, thank you.” The guide seemed shocked when he discovered he’d have a client in tow who couldn’t communicate with him. However, he was a wonderful person, and he went to great lengths to communicate with gestures. Everyone I met treated me cordially, making the trip an even bigger event. These people whom I thought so much of took care of me. It felt a little like hanging out with Hollywood stars.
In the 2 weeks I spent in Ethiopia, I visited 5 ethnic cultures, but they seemed businesslike—almost uninspiring. I took photos as they stood motionless. Then, they would leave. It was like that. More frustration mounted from my inability to tell them just how much I admired them and longed to meet them. From around 2011, I began organizing my trips to Africa, which allowed me to visit more frequently and for longer periods of time. In 2012, I removed my clothing.
The hill-dwelling Koma people wear very little, covering their genitals with leaves while dancing to festive music. They allowed me to take photos. I remembered telling my interpreter two years before that I was going to remove my clothing, and he asked me if I was serious. However, I was embarrassed and only went halfway.
After I removed my clothing, the atmosphere transformed. The Koma became more earnest and told me through the interpreter that they had never met a foreigner like me. They knew that for people who normally cover their body removing clothing in public was difficult. They empathized with me. With every African ethnic culture, I have a similar response. However, by removing my clothing, I can enter their inner circle, and the sullen looks turn into smiles. In Namibia, I speak with actions rather than words and test to see how far I can run with it.
So far, I’ve visited seventeen of Africa’s 54 countries, and I keep passionately taking photographs—mostly because I feel I was denied my passion in my youth. I want people to look at my photos and see what I found in Africa and Africans. Too many people have an image of Africans as impoverished. A great Pulitzer Prize winning photo depicts a starving girl and a vulture. I want to counter these pictures and show people the richness I see in Africa as I stand with the ethnic nations.
Africa is home to many diverse groups and areas. I consider it my life’s work to interact with all of it.
Words & Photography: Nagi Yoshida