The Swahili language and the culture of a little-known Kenyan people are the subject of a new photography exhibit at the University Museum, held as part of the celebration of Black History Month. The exhibit, entitled "Okiek Portraits: A Kenyan People Look at Themselves," displays the photography of Corinne Kratz, an anthropologist who works at the University of Nairobi in Kenya and the Smithsonian Institution. The 31 color photographs on display were taken between 1982 and 1989, portraying the Okiek people of west-central Kenya. "I wanted to give a perspective that questions some of our images of Africa," Kratz said at a preview of the exhibit earlier this month. Kratz said that the photographs are candid representations of ordinary events and tasks of the Okiek as well as special occasions. She added she also wanted to confront stereotypes of the Okiek by other Kenyans. Being known by other Kenyans as "Il Torrobo," or "those poor people with no cows," has not helped the Okiek in dealing with the Kenyan government, she said. The exhibit is set up so that the observer can trace the lives of the Okiek by viewing the photos in sequence. Kratz said she wants the viewer to "trace the relations [among the subjects] and put together what the different people do." The viewer must carefully keep track of the recurring subjects through the different photographs in order to get a feel for the Okiek way of life. The pictures are "arranged in life cycle sequence," from the youngest generation to the oldest. "Imagine yourselves talking to the people," Kratz said. She includes captions written by the Okiek, giving "excerpts from Okiek discussions that they had when looking at the pictures . . . [this] seemed to be a way to bring the pictures more to life," Kratz explained. "The captions are the really exciting part [of the exhibit]," remarked Assistant Anthropology Professor Kris Hardin. "Now we are beginning to get some of the voices of the people that anthropologists study, so it gives us a multi-vocal kind of anthropology. You can no longer expect to be a Western scholar and not have the critical input from the societies you are studying." Kratz speaks Swahili and has been living with the Okiek on and off since 1974. Consequently, the process of gathering captions was for Kratz both nerve-racking and exciting. She said that she kept wondering, "What are they going to say? I can't wait to hear." The exhibit also gives a look at Western influence on the Okiek people. In one photograph, battery-powered lights flash on the head-dress of a young girl. Kratz began the project as an undergraduate, and has been working on it for 17 years. "When I started as a freshman at Wesleyan, I had never heard of anthropology," Kratz said. "When I was a junior, I became interested through some of the readings I was doing. I decided that I wanted to go [to Kenya]." Kratz said she intended for the project to be a short one, but it has become a life-long project for her. "Okiek Portraits" will be on display at the University Museum through March 20.Comments powered by Disqus
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