Stars of Ethiopia

Photographs by Chester Higgins Jr.

Amhara Woman 2

March 1 — May 8, 2011

An outdoor series of 13 large-scale portraits from Ethiopia displayed at the Kimmel Center Windows Gallery at LaGuardia Place and West 3rd Street. An exhibition curated by Lydie Diakhate and organized by the Institute of African American Affairs at NYU.

Kimmel Center-NYU
West Village
60 Washington Square South
New York, New York


Afar Man
Afar Man
Afar woman
Amhara Man
Dasanche man
Mursi Young Woman
Tigrai man
Suri Young Woman
Hamer Young Woman
Hamar Woman



Portraying contemporaneity

Chester Higgins came back with remarkable images from his visits to Ethiopia (2007-2010). With his portable photo studio he traveled to different villages in the North and South region, enabling him to create intimate portraits of Dassenech, Mursi, Amhara, Tigrai, Gnangaton, Hamer, Afar people and many others. With his very singular gaze and spiritual insights, Higgins introduces us to people of Ethiopia we are not used to seeing in the usual representation of the emblematic country. Each person portrayed becomes an icon. The work of the photographer is highlighted by a collaboration based on a steadily confidence with his subjects. In terms of aesthetics, the photos reach an exceptional level of quality, featuring tradition into a contemporary lens. But performing beauty is not the only focus for the photographer; Higgins has a longstanding commitment within Ethiopia and its people that he is dedicated to share with the viewers.

Displayed at the Kimmel Center Windows Gallery this series of Ethiopian portraits will engage an exceptional daily conversation with the numerous citizens and visitors of New York City within the most popular neighborhood in Manhattan. Thus, each portrait establishes a powerful dialogue with the viewer. Far away from her/his geographical location but closer thanks to the display, each person posing with her/his attributes questions the relationship engaged with the viewer. Showcased with delicacy and elegance, each one is a unique character. They express their fully in depth into their direct cultural environment that will resonate with the vibrancy of New York City. Instead of being destabilized, the viewer will share a surprising complicity with the characters. Here, the difference comes to be the vehicle for awareness and enrichment.

Lydie Diakhaté, Curator


Picturing Stars of Ethiopia

With my camera, I challenge people to see the full breath of our humanity. I look for dignity in the human condition. And because I believe everything exists at the pleasure of the universal spirit, I search beyond the obvious for the signature of the spirit in all things.

In 1973, I fell in love visually with the Ethiopian people, the culture, and the land, so ancient that human history began here. Since that first visit, I have returned to Ethiopia more than thirty times. Five years ago, I began bringing equipment to set up a high fashion field studio. I trained my local facilitators to be lighting and studio assistants. Using this portable studio, I am able to flood my subjects' faces with strong dramatic light and produce photographs that capture the nuances of each person's appearance.

On my first trips to Ethiopia, I discovered the highlanders and the many remarkable structures to faith that dot the countryside in the northern regions. On subsequent trips, I worked in the western and southern regions. I came to appreciate the dramatic differences in traditions, dress, worship, and even languages between the various people of Ethiopia. All the expressions of beauty presented in the Stars of Ethiopia exhibition are the product of one people bound together in one nation, living under the starry floor of heaven. To me, the place, the people, the culture, the history are droplets of starlight which I try to capture through the lens of my camera.

Chester Higgins Jr., Photographer



Saturday, March 26, 2011

New York Culture/Arts/On Photography
Sweetness And Light: Reveling In Simplicity
By William Meyers

Chester Higgins Jr.: Stars of Ethiopia
-- Windows Gallery, Kimmel Center, NYU
60 Washington Square South
(212) 998-2130
Through May 8


First, a word about the Windows Gallery: It consists of 13 vitrines, 70 by 80 inches, on the outside of the Kimmel Center -- eight on LaGuardia Place and five around the corner on West Third Street. The displays are lighted so they can be viewed around the clock without passersby having to break stride. Chester Higgins Jr. has work passersby should stop for. Mr. Higgins's portraits of Ethiopians are ethnographic in nature: The titles include the subject's tribal identity. So the "Amhara Woman" (2009) is seen in three-quarters profile, a garment of rough white cotton covering her shoulders, neck and the top of her head, where it culminates in a knot with red edging.


Amhara Woman, 2009

Amhara Woman, 2009

Gnangaton Woman, 2010

Gnangaton Woman, 2010

Dessanech Man, 2009

Dessanech Man, 2009


The "Gnangaton Woman" (2010) is shown in profile: Her features are different from those of the Amhara woman and her shoulders are bare, but she wears a mass of bead necklaces and an elaborate headpiece decorated with soda-bottle caps. Mr. Higgins is a distinguished photographer, not an ethnographer, so he varies the format of his portraits. The "Dessanech Man" (2009) is seen dramatically from behind his left shoulder, the sage "Amhara Man" (2010) looks directly at us, and the face of the "Afar Woman" (2010) takes up the entire frame. Beyond their genetic and cultural differences, and adornments, Mr. Higgins captures their individual personalities.


Amhara Man, 2010

Amhara Man, 2010


Afar Woman, 2010





daglobalist: Photography and the World
April 21, 2011

Chester Higgins: Stars of Ethiopia
By Ulrich Baer

Chester Higgins, Stars of Ethiopia
You walk down a city street in Lower Manhattan, New York City, State of New York, United States of America, Northern Hemisphere, Planet Earth, the Universe. And there on this busy but ultimately non-distinct street you encounter a remarkable series of 13 larger-than-life portraits of Ethiopians by Chester Higgins, in a show of window-installations curated by Lydie Diakhaté. Higgins' photographs are the result of encounters with Africans over many years, now distilled into a series of mesmerizing, vibrant images of the people he's met. What's special about this set of images? How do Higgins' photographs work? And what are they pictures of?

Every photograph refers back to previous images that had been created by others before. Whether or not we know or remember those prior images consciously, we make sense of any new image us in reference to those pictures that came before. We look at photographs the way we look at the face of someone new we've just met – we read that face not exclusively on its own terms but compare it unconsciously to all of the other faces that have come into our field of vision before. And then, in this instantaneous recapitulation of all of the faces that have come before we are struck by that indescribable beauty that only another human being can reveal to us. It's like the sun rising on another day, which we understand only to be dawn because we've lived through many dawns before, and yet we see and feel the sun as if for the first time. Except that it's the same old sun.

In the case of faces it's another face, an other's face – a face so indescribably different and yet a vision we understand as a face because we've been learning to read faces from infancy on. We dive into that new face's singularity by allowing it to eclipse the countless faces – remembered and unremembered – that we've seen before.

Photographs can work in a similar way on us. And images of Africa and Africans have a peculiar status in the endless and unconscious chain of images that have become before. They stand in a tradition that begins with a European view of Africa and Africans as 'other,' merely because of the fact that the medium of photography had been invented in Europe during the period when Europeans colonized Africa. Every picture of an African today extends a chain of images than is different from the chain evoked by a picture a French shop girl, say, or country-folk in Scotland. In those settings the camera had not been deployed from a position and point of view that saw itself as superior, all-powerful, and in full control of the resulting image.

Every image of and about Africa must at once engaged with and break with this long and complex but largely nefarious tradition. Every photographer in and of Africa must deconstruct this tradition of colonial images not because it is 'politically correct,' and because stereotypical images of Africans are no longer acceptable. No, every image of and in Africa and Africans must deconstruct this tradition (expose its implicit hierarchies and politics) because otherwise none of us will truly to see the world.

For it is only if and when we see Africa and Africans outside of the vexing chain of images of the 'other,' as defined by a Euro-centric point of view, that we grasp the fullness of the world. This fullness, in a nutshell, is our awareness that every photograph of a person also contains a point of view from which we can be seen as other. This point of view inside the photography can never be completely attained by us – we will never know entirely how we are seen by others. It is only when we see photographs of Africans as images of people on their own terms that we glimpse the fullness of the world – as a world that contains us rather than a world that we see outside of us.

Now behold Chester Higgins' regal portrait of a Gnangaton woman. The photograph is not only beautiful in terms of composition, detail of texture, and color. But it creates a space for the woman of the Gnangaton tribe to show herself calmly, confidently, and with a dignity that permits our gaze. And what we see is a woman wearing her tribal adornments in a way that frame and heighten her beauty.

Chester Higgins, photographer.

In the Windows Gallery curated by Lydie Diakhaté, Chester Higgins' gorgeous oversized prints directly engage the passers-by. They see a row of Africans looking out at them, calmly, confidently, and no longer in the chain of stereotypical images of Ethiopia so widely disseminated in the West. Now these Africans are inserted into the streetscape of New York where pedestrians bob along the vast ocean of humanity, and take in faces the way a gull takes in the whitecaps on the waves. Higgins's photographs insist above all on the Africans' right at self-presentation. This is a right claimed by everyone who is put in front of a camera. But it takes a photographer of Higgins' skill and depth of understanding to yield to it. Higgins has spent over three decades traveling to Ethiopia and now returns to us, the viewers passing his images in the street, the faces he's learned to read over those years. But not just the faces he's learned to read – also the faces he's allowed to read him. He's learned to photograph them outside of the chain of images that have locked Africans into settings defined by oppression and struggle.

The photograph of the woman of the Gnangaton tribe shows someone who negotiates her life with dignity and pride. The photograph's punctum, for me, consists of the bottle caps braided into her hair above the beads and necklaces contrasting so beautifully with her brown skin. We could define these bottle caps as part of the Africans' "cargo cult" – the natives' appropriation and adaptation of Western, modern goods for ornamental and other uses, as explained by anthropologist Michael Taussig. But when I behold these bottle caps as part of the woman's beautiful headdress I no longer see some items from "the West" and from "modernity" that have been appropriated by a poor African. No – what I see for the first time is the sheer beauty of a hive of bottle caps, hovering like carefully curated shiny dollops arranged by an African milliner/hairdresser atop a head held high in the awareness of her beauty. I see for the first time the true and absolute function of bottle caps – and I now realize, through Chester Higgin's gracious and imposing portrait, that the West had always misunderstood, denigrated, limited the lifespan of bottle caps.

Indeed, the West had not seen and recognized the beauty of bottle caps and realized their full potential, relegating them to a short life of sealing soda or beer until they get trashed. Now we see a detail of modernity revised, re-used, expropriated and re-visioned by a woman from Africa. The brass key around her neck attains a dignity that pries this object from its Western, utilitarian setting. And by taking these small objects out of their setting the woman also leaves the chain of reductive images in which Africans have been trapped for all too long.

Proud, dignified, looking not at us but capturing our gaze. This is the face not of Africa but of an African woman who makes us want to know more, and makes us realize that to look at her means to see the world.

Higgins' photograph succeeds because it does not bow to the weight of images of Africans, stooped and struggling to throw off the yoke of colonialism. Instead it shows Africans who view themselves as looking forward. Looking out at us, without a desperate need to say Look at me! but with the confidence that simply by their comportment and as a result of Higgins' steady, patient and humble handling of the camera they hold and transform our gaze.




Stars of Ethiopia take Center Stage at NYU's Kimmel Center

Read review here:



The New York Amsterdam News
April 21 — April 27, 2011

'Stars of Ethiopia' shines at NYU Kimmel Center

by Mahalet Dejene
Special Correspondent to the AmNews

World-renowned photographer Chester Higgins Jr. has created a series of 13 portraits currently on display at New York University's Kimmel Center Windows Gallery at LaGuardia Place and West 3rd Street. The photographs, which can be seen from the sidewalk, are 70 by 80 inch expositions of the characteristics and charms of various Ethiopian people.

Higgins, a photographer for the New York Times since 1975, captured the images during his visits to Ethiopia between 2007 and 2010. He traveled through the northern and southern regions, chronicling the physical nuances of the Afar, Amhara, Dessenech and Gnangaton people, among others.

Higgins has been traveling back and forth from Ethiopia for over 20 years. For the last 10 years he has been traveling there yearly for six weeks at a time. He chose the Ethiopian people for this expression because of the unique atmosphere of a country that was never colonized and has vast differences between the North and the South.

"I fell in love with the country and the people," said Higgins. "Ethiopia is different, culturally. It's ancient-speaking."

Higgins was interested in showing the dichotomy between the country's near-ancient traditionalism and modernity. To do so, he decided to bring the New York City fashion studio style of photography — with bright lights and beauty shots — to Ethiopia.

When he arrived in the East African country, Higgins and a small group of aides went out to different villages to find their subjects. They would never unload anything from the car until they spoke to the elders of the community and asked permission. Higgins said he would tell them about his mission to share the stories of the people in Ethiopia and display their pictures to people who did not know they existed.

He would offer whatever the subjects deemed was a fair price, which was sometimes as little as $7 to $25. After he was given consent, he and his crew would set up a makeshift studio of backdrops and canopies, the synthetic backgrounds helping to capture the tiniest nuances in the subject's faces.

In the portrait of an Amhara woman, one can see each red vein in her eyes and each yellowing blemish that layers the red and gold undertones of her skin. Tiny specks of dirt decorate the hair of the Afar man, whose bold gaze is both beautiful and stern as he stares at the camera straight on.

The yellow and white face faint of the Suri woman is given new dimension, the flakes of dry paint raise outwards like tiny leaves on a wide tree. Her glazed eyes look to the right as her eyelids lay heavy on her face.

Perhaps one of the most arresting images is the portrait of the elderly Afar woman. Every line on her face is a river running around her eyes, which appear both sage and saddened. The wrinkles on her forehead cross and layer like wayward paths or the tally marks of passed time and memory. Her profile nearly fills the entire frame — only her red headscarf and the gray-blue background make up the remaining space.

The large size of the portraits is no coincidence. Higgins and the curator of the exhibit, Lydie Diakhaté, wanted to attract a larger audience. Diakhaté believed the Kimmel Center Windows Gallery was 'a border between gallery and public art,' and wanted to take full advantage of the large space to focus simply on the people in the photographs rather than any other distractions.

"I'm always upset about how Africa is being portrayed in news, music and art. It's never good. I just wanted to show people the Africa I know,' said Diakhaté, who looked through 200 to 300 of Higgins' photos to select the 13 on display.

The exhibit calls attention to the diversity of the people of Ethiopia, who differ as much in apparel as they do in appearance and attitude depending on the region they inhabit.

"I just wanted the people who walk by, the students and tourists, to engage in a direct dialogue with the portraits," said Diakhaté, who believes the variety of racial groups of Ethiopia makes a commentary on the diversity of Africa.

"I worked with Chester Higgins to bring a new collective memory to the new Africa through Ethiopia," said Diakhaté, who is pleased with the exposition.

Higgins portraits, organzed by the Institute of African American Affairs at NYU will be on display until May 8.




New York / Arts & Entertainment / Music
Chester Higgins Jr. A man and his vision
March 22nd, 2011 11:41 am ET

By Beverly Terry

Photojournalist Chester Higgins Jr. is a photographic visionary with a mission.

His mission is to express to the world, through his photography, the beauty, humanity and dignity that lives within the African and African American communities. He conveys the richness and soul that breathes the life into these complex human beings.
The detailed complexities of both bodies of people are a constant theme living within his images. In other words, his work has been a constant supporter of the perpetuation of African beauty and African pride.

Rather than the constant portrayal of the stereotypical negative stigmas that remain attached to both bodies of people such as: famine, massive death tolls, crime, slavery and civil war.

In his career, Chester Higgins Jr. has captured some of the most prolific images to date.
An astute alumnus of Tuskegee Institute (1970), currently (Tuskegee University), and an Alabama native, Higgins' love for photography was discovered accidentally. He stated when he realized he had no photos of his family, particularly his beloved dear aunt and uncle who raised him, he began bringing his camera home from school and started documenting his home life. "It taught me where home was, and to appreciate home." It also began his discovery of the many reflections of himself.

Growing up, he was heavily influenced by the Civil Rights era and the African Union, this influence better prepared him for his first journey to Africa.

He learned that the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now known as the African Union (AU) was celebrating their 10th anniversary of the (OAU) summit in May of 1973. He stated "I wanted to see what African leaders looked like, so I got all my pennies together and left for Africa." Two years fresh out of college, he decided to fly down to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to document the massive event. During the summit he got the chance to photograph, then Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I.

The one memory that stands out for Mr. Higgins during that experience was a sighting of Selassie walking through the airport with his huge entourage. He stretched his neck out far enough to gain the emperor's attention, but the emperor didn't even acknowledge his presence while walking past him. Mr. Higgins later found out that the Emperor always focused 30 feet ahead of himself so by the time he reached Chester, he had already seen him.

That is also the time he decided he wanted to be an artist. Today most artists believe Mr. Higgins' creative mind has realized its third eye and continues to generate photographic genius.  

Chester Higgins Jr. has been a staff photojournalist for the New York Times since 1975. The stories he has captured for them have been some of the most telling images captured in the publication's history.

In the New York Times Lens Project, 'Portraits of Significant New Yorkers', each photograph is a compelling visual look into his subjects' emotions. Fragments of each of their personae lives in every image.

Mr. Higgins has managed to build a bridge between art and emotion and it is evident that he becomes one with his subjects. This style of photography has propelled him to enormous heights in the arts and continues to be celebrated all over the world. He is revered as one of the quintessential contributors to the African and African American Diasporan vision.  

In 'Black Women', he captures the infinite beauty and uniqueness that is a black woman. His portrayal of the elders in 'Elder Grace' is stellar. He manages to convey the evolving gradualism of their journeys into elder state, all the while confirming that beauty can be infinite.

Currently, Mr. Higgins' 13 piece still project "Stars of Ethiopia", is on display at New York University's Kimmel Center in the West Village. He shared with me that this selection of prints were an excerpt from an even larger photographic scope of southern Africa that is still in progress.

Stars of Ethiopia is a 24 hour outdoor exhibit featuring 13 images measuring 70″ x 80″, all conveying a different page from Ethiopian life. The exhibit is back lit at night so that the images are constantly spotlighted for all of NYC nightlife to see as well.
He has been documenting this project for over 4 years, shooting in 12 to 15 different Ethiopian villages; accumulating over 60,000 images to date.

The energies he envelopes in each photo featured in the 13 piece exhibit states emphatically, Ethiopia is more than famine, slavery and civil war; they are also strength, courage, beauty and most importantly human.

One passerby whispered aloud: "Chester Higgins Jr. brought a part of his soul to the West Village."

Mr. Higgins's visual collection of compelling imagery will be on display at the Kimmel Center until 5/8/11.

He also stated that the show is slated for another exhibit at the University of Australia.
Stay tuned for the upcoming exclusive interview with Chester Higgins Jr. in Part Two of "Chester Higgins: A Man and his Vision."
please click on the following link for additional photo coverage:

ARTnews June 2011

By Robert Ayers

Chester Higgins Jr
NYU Kimmel Center

In a risky strategy, and not one that would benefit every artist's work, NYU's Institute of African American Affairs decided to use the street-level windows of the Kimmel Center to spotlight Chester Higgins Jr.'s remarkable photographs. It turns out, though, that the 13 huge portraits in the exhibition, titled "Stars of Ethiopia," thrived in the 24-hour-a-day exposure. The exhibition was curated by Lydie Diakhaté, adjunct curator at the university's Grey Art Gallery.

Higgins, a longtime staff photographer at the New York Times, traveled to Ethiopia several times between 2007 and 2010, equipped with a mobile studio. He visited villages the length and breadth of the country, and produced a series of photographs recording the extraordinary ethnic and racial diversity. Ethiopia is, in fact, home to more than 80 racial groups and languages.

The figure in Suri Young Woman (2010), who appears in ceremonial face paint, seems to inhabit not just a different geographical region from the one in Amhara Man (2010), who is sporting a red T-shirt and sunglasses, but a different cultural reality entirely. These pictures are far more than ethnographic studies. Although the notion of dialogue has become something of a cliché in discussions of portraiture, it is entirely fitting to the focus of this show.

Higgins engaged with the sensibilities of his sitters to record them photographically and offer them to his spectators, in this case anyone who passed the corner of LaGuardia Place and West 3rd Street. This fact is all the more remarkable given that not all of his subjects even look at the camera. Indeed, Dassanech Man (2009) is pretty much a picture of the back of a man's head. But there is a deep humanism in these portraits that renders their subjects' appearances all the more fascinating.



A photo essay of the reception for Chester Higgins "Stars of Ethiopia"

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