Elizabeth Gilbert: Histories in Africa

September 15, 2012 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Jacksonville native Elizabeth Gilbert spent 20 years in Africa documenting the rich cultural practices of tribes through out the contient. The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens has created a special exhibit of her highly acclaimed photographic work.

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is presenting a remarkable body of work by renowned photojournalist Elizabeth Gilbert. The exhibit includes  upwards of 50 black and white photographs that document Gilbert's dynamic 20 year journey through Africa, and her attempts to capture a continent in flux, one in which traditional cultures and customs are rapidly disappearing.   With these photographs, her hope is to “distill the subjects in a timeless record, and preserve the memory of a lost era long after globalization has eroded it forever.”  

A native of Jacksonville, Gilbert attended St. Mark’s, Bartram, and Episcopal before graduating from Parsons School of Design in 1990.  The following year she moved to Kenya to work with photographer Peter Beard. As a news photographer, Gilbert documented on the brutal civil wars in Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan.  She soon realized that photographing the brutality and the tragedies she witnessed had little impact on their actual outcome but they had deep impact on her psyche. Her photography evolved towards documenting the ever changing cultural and political traditions of the continent, trying in her own way to preserve what was left of traditional African culture.

Gilbert’s photographs capture Africa in transition; a continent lingering on the cusp of globalization and preservation. “The loss of African tradition in the last century and the change I witnessed during my own travels slowly redefined my role as a photographer,” says Gilbert. Instead of remaining an invisible recorder she saw herself as a collaborator with the people she photographed. Though she was a stranger, those she photographed allowed he to witness their most private rituals and ceremonies. To Gilbert, the permission to record their historic African practices was an acknowledgment that their way of life was disappearing. Influenced by this, she began to create a more idealized portrayal of what she believed was a vanishing world. Gilbert spent nearly three years living among more than 25 ethnic groups, including the Samburu and Mursi people.

Drawing from her experiences Gilbert authored two books. The first, Broken Spears: A Maasai Journey, describes and documents four years that she spent living with Maasai tribe in Nairobi, Kenya. The second, Tribes of the Great Rift Valley, documents her journey into the Great Rift Valley in Eastern Africa. In addition to her two books, Gilbert has been published in various publications including: TIME, Newsweek, Life, and New York Times. Her work is featured in the permanent collections of The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The Museum of Fine Arts, in Houston, Texas. Her work has also been exhibited at The Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, in the exhibition ‘The Global Africa Project’ (2010-2011).

Sekenani Warrior, Sekenani, Kenya, 1998, silver gelatin photographic print, 19 x 26 in.   Elizabeth Gilbert.

Jando Dance, Malawi, 2006, silver gelatin photographic print, 59 7/8 x 40 in.   Elizabeth Gilbert.

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is hosting a special tour of the exhibition on Sunday, September 16 at 3pm.

Talks and Tea: Histories in Africa: 20 Years of Photography by Elizabeth Gilbert
September 19 and 20, 1:30 and 2:30 p.m.
September 19 discussion will be led by special guest Elizabeth Gilbert.
Members and Non-members $6 per person, includes lecture, tea and admission to the Museum and Gardens.
  Limited seating, pre-registration is required. For reservations, please call (904) 899-6004.

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