Multi-award winning global photographer and Fifty-Four mag’s key ally and contributor, Australia’s Giovanna Aryafara, spends time listening to and learning from the ethnic groups in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. Words: Jo Johnston. Photos: Giovanna Aryafara.
At Fifty-Four mag our sole reason for being is to celebrate, showcase, promote and exalt our wondrous continent of Africa – giving our readers insight and knowledge about cultures, customs and peoples that they may otherwise not have known.
We are seeking to change the narrative of the traditional news media and its often negative focus or frequently stereotyped depictions of our people’s cultures and countries.
Giovanna Aryafara’s photography helps us do just that.
I was inspired to call this image ‘Earth Mother’ because the woman in the photo uses different coloured ochre from the river for her face paint and fully surrounds herself with nature
The Australian-born photographer travels the world to document and celebrate our sense of shared spirituality and reveal known and unknown worlds – this couldn’t be truer of her six days spent listening and learning from the Suri and Karo people of Ethiopia in the Omo Valley.
Giovanna’s images give a sense of the timelessness of their distinctive culture, depicting the sophistication, dignity, pride and a sense of fierce independence in the people she met.
She shares their innocence, isolation and strikingly unique culture through her design-inspired lens.
The Karo and Suri people
The Karo and Suri are just two of many cultural communities that live within the Omo Valley.
The Lower Valley of the river is considered a prehistoric site due to the discovery of fossils and tools, which are contributing to the study of evolution – some dating back to 2.4 million years ago.
It’s no surprise that the Karo and Suri people have such a rich cultural history.
The Karo (or Kara) is one of the smallest ethnic groups in South Ethiopia, often living along the Omo River. Population numbers are sketchy but reported at between 1-3,000 in number. They decorate their faces and bodies with white chalk and red ochre. Often males have more flamboyant designs in order to stand out and gain attention during courtship ceremonies.
The Suri ethnic group numbers about 34,000 people in southwestern Ethiopia. They live as agro-pastoralists and have a strong sense of group belonging, an independent spirit and great dignity.
They excel in highly intricate body painting, often covering the entire body. They prize the aesthetics of decorative clothing, beadwork, necklaces, complex headdresses and headbands.
Giovanna explains that she focused her photography on the amazing connection these groups have with nature, using natural clay from the river to create their makeup and body paint. “They grind it down to a paste with different colours and apply the body paint in a very artistic way, combining seasonal and exotic flowers, plants, berries, and seed pods, with patterns inspired by birds and other natural elements. They have been doing this for hundreds of years.”
Since Band Aid and Live Aid in the 1980s, many have come to know Ethiopia as a nation of perpetual famines and droughts, a place of internal strife, armed conflict and corruption that have kept large portions of its population trapped in cycles of poverty. Although many of the 100 million population still live with dire humanitarian needs, exacerbated by the current climate and global food crisis, there is another window on this world that is often overlooked. There is a rich cultural history from over 80 different ethnic groups. But this rarely makes the news or shows off the strength, elegance and resilience of many of the indigenous people that inhabit parts of the country.
Giovanna has been going to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley for the last six years for professional and personal projects. She says there is a special place in her heart for the Suri people, who she connected with the most.
“This personal connection has reached the point where they wanted to meet my husband and daughter, which we did on my last trip. They held a small family ceremony to officially accept us. At this very personal time, we camped by the river, and it gave us a lot of quality time to talk about the problems that they face, such as lack of education, and the future of the next generations, especially the females.”
The Suri ethnic group are renowned for their highly detailed and expressive body artwork, face painting and resplendent clothes, accessories and, of course, one-of-a-kind personal identity and style. Inspired by wildlife and nature, they have been doing these traditional body artwork designs for generations.
Help traditions survive
You can support and protect ethnic groups like the Suri and Karo people by giving to Survival International. It lobbies governments to recognise indigenous people’s self-determination and land rights.
- Visit: Survival International.
- Or Giovanna’s website: Giovanna photography – why we support Survival International and others.