Elisabeth Sunday searches the African continent to portray those who live in tune with the natural world in its most uninhibited form
We are all a part of nature’s web. Society and culture are human responses to the environment and while all have adapted to their surroundings, many exploit the land in the name of progress. In ancient forests, vast deserts and coasts at the mercy of an uncompromising sea, there are those who have built their lives directly around the beat of nature’s pulse. In the art of Elisabeth Sunday, the borders between human, animal and nature become ambiguous as they ripple and flow as one.
© Elisabeth Sunday. Lifeline, 2011.
To outsiders, remote realms are a constant source of wonder and intrigue being seemingly so disparate from the post-modern experience. It is common but ill-informed to romanticise this lifestyle as ‘primitive’, a concept that implies a static and dated existence. Such a state does not exist as all societies are in a constant state of flux and none are without conflict, internal or external. It is the external pressure these people face that Sunday is keen to highlight in her photography. Climate change, industry, and pollution are an immediate concern for those who depend on nature so explicitly.
A common theme in my work is to intermingle human and animal or plant forms at the base of the image to demonstrate the interconnectedness of life so well understood by animist people.
– Elisabeth Sunday
The human-environmental relationship is poignantly captured in Sunday’s ‘Akan Fishermen’ series. The sea is a complex realm – it has been viewed as the originating source of humanity, an expanse of great mystery and danger or merely a place of relaxation. For the Akan fishermen of Ghana, the bond with the sea is innate and the creatures within are a vital asset. Their lives are inextricably bound to the health of their environment.
Another Africa caught up with the artist to discuss the origins of her unique style, her association with animist beliefs and a closer look at the journey of the Akan fishermen.
© Elisabeth Sunday. Gift, 2011.
Keiron LeVine | Your process of photographing through a mirror creates a dreamlike and spiritual atmosphere. How and why did this become your signature look?
Elisabeth Sunday | I am a third generation artist among a family of master artists and creative, free-thinkers. My father, Douglas Phillips, was a prominent African American stained glass window designer. My grandfather, Paul B. Travis, was a renowned American painter from the Cleveland School who became famous for his dramatic paintings of Africa and India. My mother, Jane (Travis) Spangler, had a talent that rivaled her father’s and became a ceramics artist and three-dimension designer. Each family member inspired me.
Our house held an atmosphere where ideas, artistic growth, creative process, and personal development were extremely important. Everyone was an exhibiting, master artist and as the daughter and granddaughter of great artists, it was difficult to work within any of their disciplines. When my grandfather introduced me to photography and gave me my first camera at fifteen, I knew I would become a photographer and they’d all leave me alone.
Out of college and living in Paris some years following my grandfather’s death, I experienced what many young artists go through: a creative block. I thought about how much I admired my grandfather’s work. Then one night before I went to sleep, I asked my grandfather for creative guidance. A short time later while I was visiting my grandmother’s house back in Cleveland and going through a stack of watercolors, I discovered a painting I’d never seen before. It was titled, ‘Congo Women, 1931.’ In the early part of the 20th century, the Mangbetu tribe bound the heads of their children to elongate them as a sign of beauty. My grandfather made a vibrant, highly stylized and dramatic gauche. It was powerful. I held the painting out in front of me and it seemed to leap off the page then pass right through me. I had the sensation of being knocked backward and had to take a step in order to catch my balance.
Once I returned back home to Paris, the painting inspired a series of lucid dreams. In these dreams I saw a pulsating earth, galloping landscapes, and fluid, elongated figures. One morning I woke up and said, “Granddad!” It was as though he had sent me the dreams. That very day I began my research into optical and reflective elongation. I wanted to find a way to make the images from my dreams into photographs without making them “distortions” but elegant elongated and inspiring images.
© Elisabeth Sunday. Twin, 2010.
KLV | This idea of elongation certainly appears to be the spiritual heart of your work . . . .
ES | The mirror acts as an interface between human awareness and the consciousness of nature. It dissolves these boundaries and reveals an invisible, internal portrait of unity and interconnectedness between all things. Elongated images are very much a part of our historical dialectic. It is an archetype for spirit and can be seen in gothic architecture, sculpture throughout Africa, Native American sand painting, totems, as well as ancient rock paintings and carvings from around the world. Elongation is also simply a part of nature: plant life rises to join heaven and earth with elegant verticals that reach upward towards the sun. I’ve always found these lines beautiful.
KLV | You have captured human relationships with the landscape so evocatively. As demonstrated by your work with the Efe of the Congolese forest, Tuareg of the Sahara, and of course the Akan Fishermen of the Ghanaian coast. What brought you to these particular groups?
ES | I photograph people who continue to live with the rhythms and cycles of nature in the same environment they’ve called home over thousands of years. Indigenous peoples have managed to live in balance with natural systems preserving their environment for future generations. Anthropologist Richard Leakey said that 99.9% of human history has been lived as hunter-gatherers. My work with various tribes is an investigation into their enduring relationship with nature and the earth.
I chose to photograph people who see themselves as an integral part of nature and the greater whole. The Tuareg navigate by the night sky and know every star and its’ seasonal position by heart. The Efe can distinguish between two seemingly identical bird species from observing slight differences in the number of primary and secondary feathers. All peoples living in the context of nature know how to find clean water, hunt, make fire, build shelter, and know the difference between edible and poisonous plants. They understand sustainable living so as not to deplete their resources. They can take care of themselves and also share in the same things everyone else on earth shares in; happiness, love, community and play. To my great honor, I was a guest in their homes.
The Akan fishermen’s artisan tradition of sustainable fishing has been passed down, from father to son, for four thousand years along the west African coast. The photographs speak of their bond with nature through the fish they capture by the way they hold them. The elongation invites the viewer into the photograph and demonstrates their connection to the sea and to nature.
© Elisabeth Sunday. Annointed, 2011.
KLV | The strength of the rapport you have built with the Akan fishermen is evident in the work. Their interactions with the fish emanate allure and grace. What was the balance between direction and spontaneity?
ES | I first visited the Akan fishermen in 2009. They were concerned over the state of the oceans’ diminishing fisheries due to international fishing vessels coming well within their borders. These foreign vessels employed destructive methods that lay waste to the environment and killed huge numbers of fish. The Akan agreed to be photographed in order to share their story in pictures. They chose fish to model with and assumed a posture that would best express their emotional and spiritual ties to the sea. This was a true collaboration. They wanted their story to come off the page. I worked with these men for over a three year period and as we became more comfortable working together, the men really relaxed in front of the camera, expressing themselves beautifully. This is how I got images like, “Son, Lifeline, Anointed, Bond, Jewel, and Mercy.” They came out of the later shoots. I consider this group of images to be very rare. It lets the viewer in behind the veil, revealing something quite intimate and deep.
© Elisabeth Sunday. Son, 2011.
KLV | Your photography alludes that the men and fish are one. This coincides with your interest in animism. Could you expand on this?
ES | Animism is a spiritual practice that deifies animals, plants, natural systems and the elements as a way of understanding our core human relationship with nature. Animists see themselves as an integral part of the natural world and they use their knowledge of nature – which is often woven into their myths – to survive. A common theme in my work is to intermingle human and animal or plant forms at the base of the image to demonstrate the interconnectedness of life so well understood by animist people.
KLV | How did the concepts of Anima and Animus come to feature in your work?
ES | The Efe told me about the forest spirit, or “Shatani.” The Shatani, loosely translated, means forest god/devil. The Shatani is said to be a wild, curly haired woman that embodies both the masculine and feminine aspects of nature, including ideas about good and evil, light and dark. She is also mother to the forest. The Anima and Animus series was born out of an interest to express the concept of the Shatani. In Latin, anima means “spirit, breath, life” and is associated with the feminine principle of nature. Animus is the masculine expression of anima.
For the Anima series, I photographed Tuareg women to illustrate the hidden mystery of the creative, intuitive, yielding, and internal aspects of Anima. For the Animus series, I chose to photograph the outwardly dramatic painted Karo warriors of the Omo Valley. The Karo are a warring tribe whose bold, forward attitudes show the external, provocative, mental, and physical aspects of Animus. This series represents the masculine and feminine principles that power the natural world and brings it to life.
© Elisabeth Sunday. Sunday Bond, 2011.
KLV | Would you say you are aligned with animism?
ES | I respect people who respect the earth and take care of our world. I’ve visited native peoples since I was fifteen years old and through a myriad of conversations, I’ve come to understand everything is connected. There is one earth, one ocean, one air, even one body. When one is sick, polluted, or out of balance, so too are all the others. It’s just a matter of degrees. Industrial toxins used in everyday modern life are showing up in the life’s blood of nature’s creatures all over the planet, including our own. If people saw themselves as part of nature, they would be less likely to pollute or destroy it. They would understand there is no where to throw something away. The planet is one living system that interconnects and communicates from one side of the earth to the other.
KLV | Where does this spiritual journey progress from here?
ES | I’m beginning a new environmental series comprised of four portfolios, one for each of the four elements: water, earth, fire and air. These life supporting elements are currently either under attack or distressingly out of balance. As we mature into the 21st century, we face both the greatest technological achievements, and the greatest planetary backlash the human race has ever faced. According to native wisdom, the four elements coexist in a balance. Now this has been disrupted with devastating effects worldwide. My new series will explore the visceral outrage of the planet’s hidden voices rising out from the elemental realm as a result of our environmental war against our earth.
My work in “Mirror Photography” centers around photographing the indigenous: whether reflected in a primeval landscape, our world’s constant shores, ancient forests, open skies, or with the people who have been stewards of the land for a hundred generations. The mirror is my second lens, the filter through which invisible realms fuse with the physical. My new series will begin in the Americas.
© Elisabeth Sunday. Sunday Jewel, 2010.
Elisabeth Sunday is the progenitor of “Field Mirror Photography” and began photographing with mirrors in the field in 1983. Her mirrors are designed and hand made to yield specific results. Her work is analogue (shot with film cameras) and therefore has no digital special effects. Sunday began her journeys to Africa in 1986 where she continued to photograph for more than twenty years. It was in the remote regions of Africa with traditional tribespeople where Sunday’s photographs connect her subjects with the world of nature.
Sunday’s work has been widely exhibited in the United States and Europe and is in many museum collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Houston Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Corcoran Art Gallery and many more. Nazraeli Press published her first monograph “Grace” in 2012.
Written by Keiron LeVine
All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.