David Robinson Photos

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It was in Africa that I first picked up a camera and began to photograph. By that time, I had already lived a year in Africa, so I felt comfortable with the people and acquainted with their way of life. These photographs are some of my first, taken between 1963 and 1965 in Nigeria, Dahomey (since renamed Benin) and while crossing the Sahara. Africa was familiar to me, but photography was new.

I had flown into Africa blind - with no idea of what to expect Ė in 1960 to study at the University of Ghana. At that time Ghana was the only African country to have gained its freedom from colonialism, but I knew little else about the country or the continent. During the year that followed, however, I was tutored by my professors, most of them African, and taken in hand by my fellow students who introduced me to African culture and society. As the only non-African among the 150 students in my dormitory, my education took place not only in the classroom, but also through endless late night conversations, in visits to villages and homes and by traveling throughout West Africa. At the university, in the markets and villages, on the buses and in the buses and in the nightclubs, my world was exclusively African.

I left Ghana to enter the African Studies Program at Boston University. My year of total immersion had a profound affect on me. Africa had entered my bloodstream. My entire world view, my sense of beauty and aesthetics had been shaped by Africa in a way changed me forever. Studying at B.U. for my M.A. in African history deepened my involvement mentally and spiritually, but I wanted to live Africa rather than just think it. I was determined to return.

Nearing the end of my course work, I found my way. I was hired by Harvard University to go to the Western Region of Nigeria to help build, teach and administer an experimental American-style high school. It was at this point that I decided to buy a camera, and soon after my arrival in Nigeria, I began to photograph. I had already traveled there - by mammy wagon, bus, train and bicycle - so I knew something of the country. On my return, I spent almost three years at the Comprehensive High School, Aiyetoro, during which time I traveled to all regions of Nigeria and beyond - to neighboring Dahomey (Benin), to South Africa and by Land Rover across the Sahara through Algeria to Morocco. I made many new friends and during my travels saw many new aspects of the vast African mosaic.

As a photographer, I concentrated on what I knew and liked best - the people and how they lived. Africans had taught me to see. Extremely observant, very little escapes their notice - or commentary. I can not say that I reached the same level of perception, but through their example, I learned to look carefully at my surroundings. My language of study and interpretation became photography.

For me, African beauty was not the exotic African natives of so many coffee table picture books. And, in West Africa, it certainly wasnít the animals and breathtaking landscapes of Safari brochures. I found my deepest appreciation of Africa in the small gestures of everyday living, watching people go about their daily chores and pleasures. It all became perfectly natural to me. I found that the beauty of Africa was not external but wrapped up in the totality of life.

I had come into Africa and discovered a sympathetic rhythm of life that contained energy and humor and was full of grace. Living right in the middle of it, surrounded by Africa, I felt privileged - and I still do. These photographs are my way of showing my appreciation to the Africans who taught me and to the Africa I knew and loved.

* * *

My first exhibition (in July, 1970 at the M.I.T. Student Center) was of my photographs from Africa. Now, more than 30 years later - at a time when images of Africa are almost always exotic or tragic - I have reprinted 10 of those photographs for inclusion in this limited edition portfolio. The photographs were scanned and cleaned (but not otherwise changed). and printed from digital files.

Individual prints are numbered in editions of 20. All photographs are numbered, titled and signed on the back. The Into Africa portfolio is an edition of 10 (numbers 1 Ė 10 of the print edition). There are also 2 Artists Proofs of the portfolio.

Yoruba Blue May 1963

When I lived among the Yoruba of Western Nigeria, I remember every public gathering, whether market or church, was a shimmering sea of blue cloth. Worn by the women, indigo was the common Yoruba palette, a striking visual identification. The dyeing and stenciling of indigo cloth was an art form of long standing in Yorubaland, valued for aesthetics and symbolism. The major indigo cloth market was in Abeokuta where women made the dyes, applied the designs, displayed and sold the cloth.

Aiyetoro Compound January 1965

Invited to a ceremony in the village of Aiyetoro marking the end of Ramadan, I arrived early to find the household in preparation for the ritual feast. While the goat slept, oblivious of its fate, the women, in anticipation of celebration, braided their hair, prepared the children and got themselves dressed. The men were elsewhere at this point; it was a womenís world.

Prince Adebo October 1963

The installation of a new paramount chief, the Alake of Abeokuta, marked the confluence of traditional and modern politics in one of the main Yoruba towns. It was an occasion for great celebration, bringing out traditional leaders, political dignitaries plus people from all walks of life to pay tribute. Everyone wore their finest jewelry and resplendent robes, both men and women. I found Prince Adebo, whom I first met among the crowd welcomed me with a calm dignity, experienced so often in Africa.

Dahomey Women July 1964

Everywhere African women go and whatever they are doing, they take their children with them. Strapped to their motherís back from their earliest days, children absorb the rhythms and routines of daily life well before they learn to walk. These women are at a roadside market in southern Dahomey (now Benin) not far from the Nigerian border. The extensive scarification, common among some tribes, combines decoration, symbolism, the womanís status and sense of beauty.

Onitsha Boxes August 1963

Onitsha Market was the largest in Nigeria, a bustling bazaar of commerce where almost any merchandise grown, made or imported could be found. These storage boxes, pounded out from scrap metal and decorated by entrepreneurial craftsmen, symbolize for me the energy and vibrancy of the Ibo culture. This photograph was taken a few years before the Biafran war destroyed the market and laid waste to much of Eastern Nigeria.

Black Boy Circa 1963

In Africa, Children often act out when they see a European (white) with a camera, but at a party this boy, one of my hostsí sons, silently approached me, serious and curious, in an attempt to look up through the lens from the other side. What he saw of me, I canít say, but whenever I look at the photograph I was able to take of him, all my African experiences come flooding back to me.

Ibadan Ramadan March 1963

At the time I was there, Western Nigeria was about one-third Moslem. In the regionís largest city, Ibadan, there were far too many worshipers wanting to celebrate the end of Ramadan to fit inside any mosque, so a grove outside of town was consecrated as a mosque. Thousands gathered to face Mecca and offer their prayers. This is a small section of the men who came to pray.

Algerian Market January 1965

Emerging from the sand of the Sahara into Tamanrasset, Algeria, I entered a totally different world, passing from the emptiness of the desert to the bustle of the town, from dunes to mountains and from heat to cold. While I was in shorts, townspeople were dressed in long and heavy bernooses like this market vendor. The buildings and walls of the town were made of mud. The merchant, operating an open air hardware store, was selling all the things necessary for survival in a harsh environment; fuel, tools, supplies and clothing appropriate to the desert.

Dahomey Children July 1964

African roads are lined with women selling all manner of food or drink or manufactured goods. Children take small, often minuscule, amounts from their mothers, put them on head trays and fan out, each hoping for a penny sale. They travel in packs, running up to any prospective customer. These children approached me hopeful and hesitant, their desire for a sale subdued by curiosity.

Modupe April 1964

Part of my appreciation of African beauty was observing the women whom I found to be animated, graceful and sensual. This was not the artificial beauty of the runway model or fashion magazine but one of personality and attitude toward life. Far from oppressed, the women I knew sparkled with confidence and humor. African women are very conscious of appearance and carefully select their clothes including the head scarves which they carefully wrap for style and self expression. I met Modupe at a party where a friend introduced us.
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