“I know these people” says Elisabeth Sunday about the African men she’s captured in her black and white photos currently on display at Gallery 291 in Downtown San Francisco. Using her well-seasoned camera lens and custom made mirrors scaled to human size, Sunday has wrought an impressive collection of large-format photos featuring elegantly-toned, sinewy black bodies that hail from a corner of the world where sun and earth regularly meet sea and sky.
The show is called Spiritus—a title that speaks to the ethereal and soulful collection of images, which Sunday says, offers up “that relationship between man and nature…their understanding, reliance and love for the sea.” And the men she speaks of are the Akan fisherman of Ethiopia, whose multi-generational lives are built around a centuries-long tradition passed down from father to son.
As a photographer Sunday arranges the human forms and the fish as sculptural elements within her pictures–done in a manner that is both volumous and precise. The works are contained by the physical boundaries of the frame…obviously. Yet when viewing, one’s mind has no doubt that there is unlimited space just on the other side of the crystal clear glass covering each photo. This is because, Sunday takes what would be ordinary—African men fishing near a small, coastal village—and casts everyday activities from a perspective that is deeply contemplative and preternaturally serene, thus creating captured compositions that are fluidic—sculpted bodies that waif and morph against magical landscapes of oceans swirling and curling from liquid form into vapors—permutations that mold and melt into the sky.
The photos in the Spiritus exhibition were taken over a 3 year period of time, requiring multiple visits to Africa. Standing in front of one of the elegant, black and white photos, she offers a critique:
It’s important to me to show work that’s empowering—work that releases inner magnificence. The mirror somehow enhances an invisible force. In the photographs you can see the ocean swirling around, and this man cradles in his arm a fish that he’s dependent on for his livelihood. There’s also submission and acknowledgement… all these forces that are in play [and] the mirror enhances this.
While living in Paris I had discovered a painting of my grandfathers called “Mangbetu Women.” These women elongated their head as a symbol of beauty. I had a series of dreams inspired by these paintings. In the series of dreams I saw these elongated forms…all these elongated shapes connecting heaven and earth. I began creating optical and reflective elongation…using mirrors. Because of my interest in spirit and soul, the mirror becomes a metaphor of [that].
Sunday informs that she is bi-racial, coming from a long line of artists. Her mother, she says, worked in ceramics, and her father holds the distinction of being the first African-American to have his own studio in the US. Located in Cleveland, Ohio, it was called Phillips Stained Glass Studio.
Her maternal grandfather is the late Paul B. Travis, who taught at the Cleveland Art Institute for 35 years. And as she tells the story, it is because of a grant that Travis received to travel to Africa in 1927–from Capetown to Cairo—that Sunday says she first got introduced to, and subsequently fell in love with, Africa.
“I grew up surrounded by his paintings of pygmy hunters and Congo women—scenes of the African landscape and also listening to his bedtime stories that kept me awake all night long. I really respected his work” she says, recalling encounters with her grandfather.
“I began this journey in Senegal 25 years ago…so that really began my love affair with this country. ..it’s an amazing place” she says. Continuing on, Sunday says “I thought I was just going to be going for 6 months.” Being in Africa just “raised more questions than answers,” she says.
Decades later, her African exploration has become a family affair for the youngest generation in her family. “I realized I was just digging myself in deeper, so I brought my daughter there…we have a village that we village that we visit regularly. It’s called Yadjangia,” she says. Sunday was baptized by the tribe that has adopted her as one of their own, and they gave her a new name—Yatoum Bmajo, which means “cool place.” Her Daughter, Sahara, was also given a new name by the tribe, Kah-mano, which means “understanding through words and dialog,” she says.
Like her mother, teen daughter—Sahara—has made her own imprint on the tribe, as the founder of a girls school there, which has 100 students. “She was interviewing the [girls] kids” since she was nine years old, Sunday says of Sahara, and subsequently “founded the Kan-Mano group” that supports the school.
Reflecting on memories of her many visits with the tribe that has now become her transcontinental family, Sunday says “Within those countries—those very remote tribes and people that I’ve met there…I’ve lived with them…been invited into the villages and their huts.” Because, she adds, “You can’t get to know them in one meeting…to get to know the place you have to have multiple meetings with the people.” That’s why I’ve come back “year after year” she says. “They have a very intimate connection with nature and sea.”