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Author: Michael M.J. Fischer
Title: Corinne Kratz, Okiek portraits. An exhibition of 31 photographs of Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek Okiek of Kenya
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Corinne Kratz, Okiek portraits. An exhibition of 31 photographs of Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek Okiek of Kenya
Michael M.J. Fischer

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 1, pp. 10, 1991
Author Biography: Michael M.J. Fischer is in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University where he is also Director of the Center for Cultural Studies.

REVIEW Corinne Kratz, Okiek Portraits. An Exhibition of 31 Photographs of Kaplelach and Kipchomwonek Okiek of Kenya


This review first appeared in the American Anthropologist, March, 1991, and is reproduced here with the permission of the American Anthropological Association and Michael Fischer.

How to review a museum/photo show? Scorecard style or supplement? Provide the essay half for a photo-essay form? Renew the photo-essay as an ethnographic form? And in any case, how does one read/supplement photos (or museum displays) ethnographically? Can a written review of photographs be other than an essay half of a photographic essay form?

I find museums puzzling in both senses: I enjoy solving certain kinds of puzzles; I tire easily at the refusals of most museum displays. The ethnographic photographic exhibit is a potential site of resistance within museums: photos question the silences (refusals) that frame and (de)form the pictures/objects mounted like dead specimens, encased like shreds of stolen and frozen human remains. They question because they are a contemporary technology: their makers are liable, answerable, they cannot rest easy with the justifications of antique fragments: "this is all we have."

The photographic essay, says W. J. T. Mitchell,

"occupies a strange conceptual space in our understanding of representation. On the one hand ... associated with the mutual 'resistance' of photography and writing, the insistence of the distinctive character of each ... on the other hand, the roots of the photographic essay in documentary journalism, newspapers, magazines, and the whole ensemble of visual-verbal interactions in mass media connect it to popular forms of communication ... "

including, one should add, the museum as a site of often stultifying and oppressively laconic disciplinary pedagogy by the middle classes in celebration of themselves, reenforced by scorecard styles of review. Can supplementary readings expand access/understandings?

Corinne Kratz's double-voiced, multilingual captions, and double-gazed photos, themselves suggest supplementary reviewings, call attention to multiple registers of reading, and call out from beyond the frame.

You might know the Okiek better by the name the Maasai use for them, Dorobo (Il Torrobo), or then again you might think Okiek are not really an ethnic group but forest fugitives who speak the Kikuyu, Kipsigis, etc., languages of the dominant nearby groups. Thus begin Kenyan newspaper reviews. The photographs themselves, as well as their captions (in Kiswahili, English, and Okiek), continue this interactive dialogue between the Okiek, as they call themselves, and the peoples around them. The show—with its multilingual captions, including comments Okiek made about the pictures giving a sense of their voices so that the photographs need not remain silent, passive objects for other people's interpretations—is intended to open to view such interactions, and with a bit of help from Kratz's writings the photographs can be richly read.

"... The more one reads, the more these pictures become interconnected lives, socially patterned, undergoing institutional and personal change..."

"Il Torrobo" means "poor people without cattle," obviously not a self-appellation. Okiek were honey gatherers and hunters of forest hog and bushbuck, and traded honey, horn and buffalo skins for money to purchase cloth and beads. The beads were worked into elaborate bracelets, necklaces, and other items of personal ornament, that not merely mark Okiek identity but engage in subtle counter-point to Maasai ornamentation. A photograph of a young woman coming out of seclusion after initiation dressed in a stunning display of colorful ornament bears a caption by an Okiek viewer: "You'd think she was Maasai ... you can't see clearly that this is Kopot Edina." But a Maasai woman might immediately react by pointing out errors, inconsistencies, even offenses, in the costuming according to Maasai aesthetics. In costuming, as in economics, one apprehends here grounds for Maasai seeing Okiek as "flawed", while asymmetrically Okiek appropriate and play with Maasai forms (including language) in an incorporative manner, deflating "enemy" (puunik) Ikwopik (as Okiek call Maasai) assertions of cultural hegemony. The Maasai, proud pastoralists of the savannah, fear and scorn Kalenjin-speaking Okiek who are at home in a forest ecology mysterious to Maasai, and who are unconcerned about Maasai opinion. Friendships do form; intermarriage does occur (albeit asymmetrically, Maasai men taking Okiek women, but rarely giving their sisters or daughters to Okiek men); Okiek live among Maasai and in times of hunger Maasai have found refuge among Okiek (albeit rarely learning to speak Okiek or to make beehives); in towns Okiek often "pass" as Maasai or Kipsigis; Okiek multilingualism provides rich resources for contextual code-switching and subtle indexical cultural play.

Visually, the photographs stun with intensity of color, partly a technical function of the Cibachrome printing technique (no internegative step), providing an aura of liveliness taken up by the faces, the costuming, the rites of initiation, and the life cycle sequencing of the thirty-one photos. Half of the portraits gaze back at the camera/viewer with engaged expressions; many of the other pictures are of these same individuals with whom you have had eye contact, and who one confirms from the captions are relatives and coresidents of one another as if one has actually stepped into their socio-temporal space, including watching a few of them mature over time from earlier to later portraits. Only two pictures are distanced long shots of group activity: one a striking still life of newly shaved heads—three women and two children in ochre shared robes, like an illusion of forest Buddhists, seated in a clearing amidst green foliage around a bark brown tray of white roasted mash on its way to becoming beer for the initiation rite of a girl betrothed to the son of one of the brewers; the other a dramatic freeze-frame of an initiation dance, composed of four balanced vortexes drawing the viewer's eye back and forth: a black and white monkey skin costume flashes in the lower left pointing the eye along a diagonal towards red-and-white shawls of viewers in the upper right, while along the recessive other diagonal a fire illuminates squatting children's entranced faces in the lower right, their eyes pointing up towards the dancer and, behind her, in the upper left young men dressed in Western casual style.

Costumes provide visually powerful features of the photos, as well as being an indexical subtext for those who know how to read the cultural codes. There are at least two of these codes: temporal and aesthetic. The dancer in the last mentioned photo displays the initiate's costume: six monkey skins tied to sticks on the arms so they flare, leg bells, socks, shoes, khanga cloth tied like a miniskirt over shorts, a man's shirt, striped cloth tied like a bandolier, peaked cap, crescent-shaped headpiece, tail, fly whisk, and a police whistle. The costume is a bricolage of modern and traditional elements that get elaborated first in the north and diffuse southward through Okiek territory. Traditional initiation clothes were made of monkey skins, sheep, and bushbuck hides. Since 1983, carved animals have been added on the dramatic crescent headpieces. More recently, battery-powered flashing lights have been added to headdress and tail, accenting the traditional flashing of white and black tails in light of the fire.

More subtle is the color and ornament codes of Maasai versus Okiek aesthetic systems. There is a general East African fashion silhouette consisting of a short projection at the top of the head, earrings in upper and lower ears, a concentration of ornaments at the neck, and other ornaments at upper and lower arms, waist, calves, and ankles. Maasai work with contrasting and complementary pairings in four color sets within this silhouette, deriving from a basic nineteenth century red-white-black triad called narok (black), representing the black aspect of God. The narok triad is embellished in two popular contemporary sets by dividing the end colors into complementary pairs: red-green-white-orange-blue; or yellow-red-white-black-orange. Each of these latter sets is counted as equivalent to white and used as a complementary opposition to the narok set. In the 1980s, due to a temporary shortage of white seed beads, a red-yellow-black set was introduced based on blanket patterns and the national flag. Rules of composition with these sets include: the narok set may stand alone in an ornament, but must be balanced on the body with the red-green-white-orange-blue set; ornaments on the body must alternate "black" and "white" sets: e.g., if a red-white-black bangle is worn on the left wrist, a green-red-white-blue-orange bangle must be worn on the right wrist. Sharp cuts are also central to Maasai design, associated with the discontinuities of all phenomena: slashes in a piece of roasting meat, breaks in a line of cattle or people, the short interruption of pouring milk in a cup, stopping, and continuing to pour. These cuts demarcate balanced relations of patches, stripes, fields, blocks of complementary color. Gender, age, and status are all marked through these devices.

Okiek patterns are very similar, but from a Maasai point of view, slightly "off" in their details: colors are out of sequence, or are wrongly juxtaposed, cuts are missing in places (such as often the initial black cut for God) or are done in the wrong colors or wrong width; ornaments which have particular status meanings are worn at the wrong time; and colors, motifs, and cults from Kipsigis or other groups' ornamentation are mixed in. Thus in a photograph (#15) of three girls decked out in initiate's finery, one girl wears leather earrings in her lower lobes which (according to Maasai rules) only married women should wear, and flat brass coils that only mothers of warriors wear. There is no confusion to Okiek: she is marked as a young woman recently out of initiation seclusion and/or recently married, with more specific stages of ceremonial passage marked by changes in headdress. It is as if ethnicity is worked by Okiek as a counterpoint play on the lingua franca of Maasai visual aesthetics, a kind of dialect or accent.

If there are fascinating visual codes to be read in the pictures, including seeing the elements of traditional economy and life style—hide clothes, ritual body-painting in the initiation seclusion, preparing a smoking smudge for honey collection, beer brewing, millet collection, clay-pot making—and elements of modern commerce—modern clothes, an Okiek shopkeeper—just "off screen," there is also an accompanying world of articulate sound, available to the interested reader. Two registers of sound are most obvious: (1) the songs, speeches, and confessional ritual that must go with the photo of the initiation dance, and the efficacy of which is perhaps registered in the difference of maturity in the face of a girl whose portraits span seven months pre- and post-initiation; (2) and, of course, the chatter of the Okiek captions which contrast in their liveliness with the information-l(e)aden curatorial captions.

The dance of the night before the initiation surgery involves singing of farewell songs by the girls, speeches by their fathers, and a rite of confession managed by young men who question the initiates. All of these are emotionally charged rites of intensification and catharsis: the songs have a call and response structure; relatives are called to stand before the singers, and while sisters and brothers' wives might sing a response of encouragement to bravery, brothers stand silent and often fall into fits, overcome by anxiety, while the initiate tries to reassure, "I'll be brave, I will not disappoint/shame you." Fathers give orations, while their daughters remain silent, focusing will-power and determination. The pesenweek ("social debt") confessions are airings of mutual wrongs between adults and children that could generate feelings of anger and revenge that must be dissipated if the responsibility of adulthood is to be taken up. Such incidents of ill-feeling typically involve having refused to run errands for young married women, or refusals of sexual advances in which flirtation ended in angry exchanges left to fester. If not vented (through exhausting the initiate's memories and self-defensiveness amid much adult laughter and dismissal of childish foibles, their own as well as the adolescents') these festering feelings are said to cause intensification of, and inability to withstand, the pain of clitoridectomy in the morning.

The structured passion and interpersonal relations of such "aural soundtracks" provide depth to the two-dimensional surfaces of the photographs, affirming that their vibrancy is not merely a matter of Cibachrome technique or momentary posing. The chatter of the captions is a second "sound-track." Amid the identification of people and relationships, Okiek comment also on the nature of the photographs as fixing images forever, on their being displayed in Nairobi, on recording old ways ("you met her still wearing skins, these are the people of long ago, they are the ones that are wanted, not the fancy ones"), on momentary curiosity as to how total foreigners might view such oddities as the body painting ("they'll say we must be cannibals"), on the ornamentation ("If Kopot Edina gets dressed up with beads, you would think she was Maasai"), on psychic states ("He's drunk." "Is it visible? How?" "From his eyes;" "Look at the veins on her head, she's had something to drink, don't you see her mouth is dry"), on beauty ("I've never seen such a woman with such beauty ... the kind you chase after;" "there's no beauty like that of this child;" "Yes, with the lovely tooth gap"), on temporal change and ethnic difference ("our decorations from long ago, you don't know them;" "they have beauty marks on their faces, this was our decoration long ago;" "And this is what we were wearing long ago, you see these skin earrings"). They mimic and laugh ("don't you see the calabash he's blessing? [imitates him] hehehehe, I swear by my mother-in-law!"), and gossip ("I heard she was fined a calf and four blankets;" "She had a child with a Kipsigis, be quiet, I'll tell you when we're alone"), and marvel at the ethnographer ("when did you go around photographing secluded initiates?"; M: "Why did you take her picture, Cory?" CK: "What's wrong with it?" K: "These are the people of long ago, these are the ones that are wanted." M: "Those of the colonial type?" K: "These are the ones that are wanted, not the fancy ones, these"), and laugh about the tape recorder ("What's this thing Cory?" "The thing that records words" "These words we're saying? [laughs] my goodness, hey Cory is really live ... [to his small daughter:] stay away from me, don't get sticky honey remains on me, go there and wash your hands, may you turn white now with that big mouth ... Cory, so you take this honey and greet your country for us, and tell them those things are what we gave you ourselves.")

Having explored some of the codes and registers to be read in the photographs, one can return to their sequencing in the life-cycle order—seven photos of children or adults with their children; twelve around the time of adolescence, initiation, and marriage, of which eight are girls bedecked for initiation, one of a girl mischievously peeking out from under her modestly bent head during her wedding procession, one of a boy who was suddenly to die wrapped in an old time hyrax fur; and twelve of older adults, of which six are engaged in crafts, domestic (cooking, nursing) or gathering (honey, millet, thatching) activities, four are engaged in watching, preparing or discussing an initiation, and three are character portraits of old age (wisdom, laughter, and ancientness). The more one reads, the more these pictures become interconnected lives, socially patterned, undergoing institutional and personal change connected to neighboring peoples, the national polity, and the international market.

Photograph and text, view and gaze, sound and sight, visual codes and multiple languages, dialogic give and take on both simple human and systematic scholarly levels allow multiple accesses to ethnographic reality unlike so many picture books and museum exhibits where texts either merely caption pictures, or more often take off in flights of non-ethnographically controlled fancy, stereotype, or typology.

The exhibition of Corinne Kratz's "Okiek Portraits" premiered at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi in 1989. It has toured the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and the University Museum of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The exhibit is available for additional bookings by contacting: Okiek Portraits; Corinne Kratz; 2733 Ordway, NW, Apt. 2; Washington, D.C. 20008 USA

Kratz, Corinne, Emotional Power and Significant Movement: Womanly Transformation in Okiek Initiation. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1988.

_____, "Persuasive Suggestions and Reassuring Promises: Emergent Parallelism and Dialogic Encouragement in Song." Journal of American Folklore, 103 (1990), 42-67.

_____, "Aesthetics, Expertise, and Ethnicity: Okiek and Maasai Perspectives on Personal Ornament." In Being Maasai: Ethnicity and Identity in East Africa, edited by Thomas Spear and Richard Waller. London: James Currey, forthcoming.

_____, "Amusement and Absolution: Transforming Narratives During Confession of Social Debts." ms.

Mitchell, W. J. T. "The Ethics of Form in the Photographic Essay." Afterimage, (January, 1989), 8-13.

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