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Photographs in ‘African Twilight’ exhibit chronicle vanishing societies

Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher spent the past four decades crisscrossing the African continent, traveling more than 300,000 miles in 48 countries. Their mission: photograph traditional societies disappearing into modern life.

The pair came away with more than half a million images of ceremonies and rituals that mark birth, coming of age, the changing of the seasons, marriage, worship and death, as well as the lush garments, jewelry and artwork that go along with them.

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Eighty-eight of these photographs are on display at the Bowers Museum in the new exhibition, “African Twilight: Vanishing Rituals and Ceremonies.”

Through these photographs, which show vivid multi-colored feather masks, intricate beadwork, raffia headdresses, body painting and leaf masks, Beckwith and Fisher said they hope audiences will see a common humanity with their subjects.

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“We’re actually all African — we all come from Africa,” said Beckwith, who is originally from Boston. “So this is really the story of our human heritage.”

For the photography duo, who traveled to what Beckwith called the “most remote corridors” of the continent to find traditional societies, visually documenting them was an urgent task, given the rate at which they’re vanishing. According to their own estimate, 40% of the ceremonies and rituals they photographed over the last 40 years have already “disappeared or changed beyond recognition,” said Beckwith.

“Africa is changing very fast,” added Fisher, who was born and educated in Australia.

The reason, she explained, is the encroachment of modern technology, such as smartphones into traditional ways of life, but also Westerners forcing their way of life on them.

“What we’re really seeing right now is a breaking down of traditional societies,” said Fisher. “They’re either being pushed into Western clothing, or pushed into Western economies, or they believe that the younger generation thinks it’s more trendy to go into the Western world, more attractive to go into the Western world.”

The photographs were taken in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Benin, Nigeria, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Madagascar and other countries. “African Twilight” will also be released as a two-volume book later this fall.

“We got it just in time,” Fisher said of the rituals and ceremonies captured in their photographs. “If we started now, we would have never been able to do it.”

Beckwith and Fisher said that through the exhibition audiences can learn important values from traditional societies, in particular, the community and the wisdom of elders.

But the most critical lesson is the place of nature in these cultures, Fisher said.

“Living at one with nature is something we need to learn,” she said. “The outside world is now disrupting nature, where things are being destroyed, the seas are being destroyed, life is being destroyed. And we need to understand and appreciate nature — and traditional people do that. They honor nature and understand its power.”

If You Go

What: “African Twilight: Vanishing Rituals and Ceremonies”

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday through Jan. 6.

Where: Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana

Cost: $10 to $15

Information: bowers.org.

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is a contributor to Times Community News.

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