ARTS The City Sun
December 6, 1995
Africa Reborn in Photo Exhibit
By Peter Essick
With the publication of Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa, Chester Higgins Jr. finds new meaning in the photojournalist's motto 'bearing witness.' This documentary work of the people of the African diaspora, which has evolved over a period of 26 years, seeks to visually reconnect the spirit of a people separated by a terrible history. The simpleóbut ultimately complexómessage being that slavery, oppression and the march of time have created diverse communities on both sides of the Atlantic, but the common spirit has survived. Or as Higgins, an African American, states "We are Africans not because we are born in Africa, but because Africa is born in us."
The connection is made through the sophisticated pairing and sequencing of seemingly diverse photographs.
Higgins chose a thematic presentation of his story, intermixing pictures taken in different regions and times. This gives the simple straightforward photographic compositions new layers of meaning because of the context. It all adds up to an interpretative approach, free flowing like the African spirituality being celebrated.
Into this global project, Higgins has infused a personal vision. He began the project by photographing the people in his hometown of New Brockton, AL and his experience of growing up black in the South serves as his point of departure. It is from these roots that he looks back to ancient Egypt as the land of his ancestors. He sees in the once great civilization a metaphor for African possibility. In modern Africa, he searches for the spirit of a people untouched by American racism. His New York photographs show the extension of his personal growth and artistic vision. Throughout the book, this distillation of time and travel is repeated again and again.
Higgins' photographs are tranquil and always respectful. They are not overtly political, but in the current media climate, their dignified portrayals of African people send a strong message. His revisionist look at African history is driven by enlightenment. It would be easy to criticize Higgins' work as being one-sided in its positive approach, but to do so would be to miss the message. The work is honest in that it fulfills Higgins' goal, to visually reclaim a lost identity. The first two chapters of Feeling the Spirit, entitled "Most Ancient Place" and "Middle Passage" are a reverential look at African history. They show evidence of past kingdoms and haunting scenes of the former House of Slaves. Chapters 3 and 4, "Living Water" and "Sanctuaries" explore the needs and experiences of African people and how they also have much in common with the human family. The scenes in Alabama, Mexico, Mali and Ghana on one spread look more similar than different; a slightly different pattern woven with the same thread. Chapter 5, "Spirituality," is an in-depth look at a variety of African religious practices and expressions. Higgins has tirelessly documented many unique ceremonies, some of which are not too well-known in this country.
The workings of the soul take center stage in Chapter 6, "In Our Manner." This chapter deserves special notice, and should be studied by any student of the photo essay. It is a masterful edit of subtle and revealing pictures. The pairing of photographs often creates a third effect, rich and open to a multitude of meanings. In this chapter, Higgins accomplishes much of what he set out to do: to visually grasp the spirit of his people.
Chapter 7, "Rites," returns to a more straightforward presentation. The final chapter, "In Each Moment," seeks to find meaning in the simple, everyday affairs of life. That meaning becomes suffused in the puzzling layout, which groups pictures seemingly at random. The final picture of two girls in Alabama with very different facial expressions is even more ambiguous. Answers are hard to come by, but Feeling the Spirit ends as if unfinished. The viewer is left feeling mystified or somewhat confused.
John Edgar Wideman once said that to attempt to describe the Black experience was like "taking a snapshot from a moving vehicle of a scene that is also moving." For the last three decades, Higgins has taken aim at this changing landscape and produced an important body of work. His photographs bear witness to the contributions of an often overlooked and stereotyped people, but their greatest power may be in providing evidence of the ancient and abiding spirit; a cornerstone on which to build the new African house. "Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa" is published by Bantam Books. An exhibition from the book is at the Uptown gallery of the International Center of Photography through January 8, 1996.