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Into foreign hands - reflections on Robert Slingsby's Crossing the Line...

I have recently returned from a trip to the Katanga province of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which I can only describe in the most neutral of adjectives, as "harrowing". As I drove through this fecund land, visibly bursting with natural wealth, I witnessed the mutilation of its body, its lungs clogged, heart gouged out, carved up and consumed. I saw its arteries severed and its life-blood seeping through a desiccated skin.

Robert Slingsby's current exhibition, Crossing the Line, documents a similar travesty afflicting the region; his locus, the remote Omo River in south west Ethiopia. Here too one bares witness to the wholesale theft of Africa by rapacious multinationals aided and abetted by governments profiting from, to quote Slingsby, "these parasites in paradise".

Despite the end of colonialism, the interplay between economic, political, and social forces continues to drive European, American, African and Asian interests to establish a stake in this resource-rich region. This frenzied scramble for Africa has succeeded through the declaration of exclusive commercial claims to particular territories, including exclusive control of waterways and commercial routes throughout the continent. In an insidious form of neo-imperialism, multinationals have imposed excessive tariffs, committed tax evasion and perpetrated fraudulent practices that rob indigenous communities of the essential fruits of land and labour. Thus for every $1 donated in aid to Africa, $10 is drained out in the form of foreign profits.

In Crossing the Line, Slingsby's iconography comprises the traditional communities living along the Lower Omo River in south west Ethiopia. In this remote, arid region, there exist nine main tribes with an overall population of around 200,000, maintaining their ancient traditions. The two principal tribes constituting the foci of Slingsby's lens and canvas are the Mursi and the Karo. They represent two of the most ancient tribes along the Omo, whose cosmology, rituals and livelihood are inextricably linked to the river running through the region.

The Mursi, base both rites of passage and ritualistic bodily adornment on the ebb and flow of the Omo. Numbered at about 7500, they are among the last groups in Africa to still pierce and stretch their skin, particularly their lower lips, with large clay discs, fashioned from the silt found along the Omo. This deliberate act of disfigurement was performed centuries ago as a form of self-protection against slave traders, but has since become a signifier of identification and status. Similarly, a key marker of male identity is the ceremonial duelling (thagine) or stick-fighting, especially among unmarried Mursi men who, in stature and stealth, resemble the Masai and Turkana tribes of Northern Kenya. Among these warrior tribes the duels serve as a form of ritualised male violence, cementing their hierarchal structure. Before these duels, the men decorate their anatomies with ochre patterns, sourced from the Omo River, to denote their tribal status and the age set to which they belong. As with the Karo, the spiritual cosmology of the Mursi and their belief in a Higher Power are intimately interwoven with their dependence on the river for their survival.

One of the smallest tribes in the region, the Karo, number around 1500. They are most obviously identified by their body art, painted with ochre from the river in vibrant swathes, as well as their anatomical adornments and permanent scarification. These bodily modifications denote both personal beauty and fixed social, political and religious roles, particularly during rites of passage such as puberty and marriage. Also dependent on the largesse of the Omo for their aesthetic and symbolic properties - the river ochre is mixed into yellow, red, blue and white pigment - these patterns serve not only as boundary markers, but also as cultural coats of arms.

Tribes such as the Mursi and Karo, as well as the Hamar who also occupy the Omo Valley, and Himba of Namibia, have fascinated Slingsby for over 40 years. His extensive journeys through the Richtersveld in the Northern Cape of South Africa, where he meticulously recorded the petroglyphs produced by the ancient Nama, represent the origin and stimulus of his mission to record the remnants of the legacy of forgotten ancient people. He has traversed ancient sites worldwide to document the traditional art of communities who lived there. His passion has been driven, particularly  by a confluence of both anthropological and ethnographic concerns. He seeks a comparative and critical understanding of people, their relationship to each other and their environment through accurate, detailed observation. Ultimately, Slingsby's role is that of humanist, artist, historian and activist: intricately mapping the visual markings of personal and social histories furrowed onto faces and habitats. His journey has not been fuelled by a naive protest against "progress" but by a profound belief in social justice. Through his art, Slingsby has waged an unrelenting protest against the rupturing of ancient rites, aesthetics and spaces by the bulldozer's claw, while acknowledging the polarities of wounding and healing, desecration and restoration, loss and reclamation.

In Crossing the Line, Slingsby's portraits straddle both that of documentary photographer and painter. Portraiture essentially freezes the fleeting, rendering a historical time's conventional creases. In the past, Slingsby's portraits veered between verisimilitude and an intricate symbolism. But in Crossing the Line, Slingsby's style of portraiture has undergone a noticeable shift. His usually exuberant palette, although still vivid, has become more sombre; retaining the earthy, primary hues used by the Mursi and Karo themselves. Tellingly, his signature proclivity for surface minutiae has been replaced by images that are stark, majestic and utterly beautiful.

Certainly, debates might be ignited around Slingsby's representation of "otherness" and, by implication, his “eroticising” thereof. And in Crossing the line, one cannot avoid both the politics of representation and interpretation, particularly within the context of a shifting landscape characterised by painful contestation over natural resources, livelihoods and legacies. However, Slingsby does not attempt to appropriate the narratives of the Mursi and Karo, nor to impose his own, admittedly partial, western perspective. His approach is one of profound respect for a people and a natural environment already damaged by the irascible lure of lucre.

For centuries, the Mursi and Karo have lived along the 760 km long Omo River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The former still survive off husbandry, while the latter resorted to subsistence cultivation of sorghum, maize and beans, after their herds were decimated by the tsetse fly. As mentioned above, the material, spiritual and aesthetic cultures of both tribes are inextricably dependent on the river. In particular, they rely on its annual flood between July and September for crop cultivation and the replenishment of grazing lands. Indeed, all the tribes along this river have developed complex socio-economic and ecological practices intricately adapted to the harsh and often unpredictable conditions of the region’s semi-arid climate. These essential defenses against starvation have been sabotaged by the construction of a massive hydro-electric dam, Gibe III - Ethiopia’s largest investment project, on the Omo.

In July 2006 the Ethiopian government signed a contract with the Italian company Salini Costruttori to build the dam, with China’s largest bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China funding part of the dam construction. On the one hand, this project could power the country into the future, addressing a legacy of underdevelopment. On the other hand, it will exacerbate the disempowerment and marginalisation of traditional communities. Indeed it already has. Furthermore, the contract was not put out to tender beforehand, in flagrant violation of Ethiopia’s laws. No environmental or social assessments of the impact of the plantations and irrigation scheme were conducted prior to construction, nor were there any consultations with the affected indigenous communities.

Independent experts predict that the dams, plantations and irrigation canals will exert a devastating impact on the region by disrupting the seasonal flooding of the Omo, which flows into Kenya's Lake Turkana. This will cause the drying out of much of the riverine zone and the decimation of surrounding forest. Experts predict that the consequence of this environmental destruction will be the collapse of subsistence economies in the region. With hundreds of thousands of tribal people facing critical food shortages, competition for dwindling food security will be aggravated, potentially perpetuating Ethiopia's history of famine - the country's tragic trademark. Dubbed "the dams of death" by environmentalists and human rights activists, these projects -  Gibe III is the third such dam under construction - have already exerted a ripple effect in neighbouring countries.  They have contributed to the desertification of the area and brought unprecedented drought to over 10 million people in downstream Kenya.

The danger of inter-ethnic conflict has already increased between marginalised, agro-pastoral communities. More ominously, several tribes have been evicted and resettled to make way for the leasing of fertile land in the Lower Omo region to Malaysian, Italian, Indian and Korean companies. Here, the cultivation of large-scale cash crops, such as cotton, palm oil and sugar have further disrupted the delicate ecosystem. Communities’ grain stores and their grazing pastures have been destroyed. Those who oppose the theft of their land and legacy are routinely arrested. There have been numerous reports of the military, who guard the construction projects, of assaulting, raping and murdering opponents.

According to Terri Hathaway, director of International Rivers' Africa programme, Gibe III is "the most destructive dam under construction in Africa." The project would condemn "half a million of the region's most vulnerable people to hunger and conflict." The answer, human rights groups and environmentalists insist, lies in halting the construction of this "death dam" and implementing policies that do not allow progress and profit to be prioritised over the preservation of habitat. However the line has long been irreversibly crossed by flawed praxes that are, literally, stealing Africa. In Crossing the Line, Slingsby not only pays homage to the tribes under threat, he fires a visceral salvo at the consequences of policies championing progress at all costs. This is demonstrated through a multimedia installation that audio-visually documents the sojourn of Slingsby among the Mursi and Karo.

It is Slingsby's portraits that provide the most tragic portents of catastrophe. They are images of dignity, reflecting nothing of the upheaval that is set to afflict their lives. Whether in Ethiopia, or elsewhere in Africa, or indeed wherever indigenous communities dwell; without effective intervention these last remaining links to our ancient heritage face a future of poverty and dispossession, as ancestral lands fall into foreign hands.

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UPDATED 2nd July 2016