Last spring, I visited the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and then, a month later, traveled to Chichen Itza, the 1,000-plus-year-old Mayan ruin. Both times I was struck by, on the one hand, the scientific, mathematical and engineering sophistication of the ancient Mayan culture and, on the other, the thought of the powerful hallucinogens they must have imbibed for them to come up with their phantasmagoric visions of the afterlife — let alone their brutal ceremonies. (Just one example: a rugbylike game where the penalty was to have your head chopped off to be used as a ball.)
I mention this because even when we visit sites of early civilization — Athens, Rome, Jerusalem, Angkor Wat, Pompeii, Machu Picchu or Petra — ancient wisdom seems like ancient history, evidence of a culture that no longer exists. It is very easy to believe that we have evolved, that modern society has progressed. But the real loss remains elusive: What might we have learned from these extinct peoples?
“No strangers: ancient wisdom in a modern world,” at the Annenberg Space for Photography, transports us through photographs to places most of us will never see, far-away corners of the earth where indigenous people still practice their traditional cultures. Curated by anthropologist Wade Davis, whose book-turned-film, “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” explored Haitian voodoo culture and sought to explain zombies by studying psychotropic substances, “no strangers” features work by 24 photographers, as well as a short documentary about the photographers’ work. The exhibition is organized around several themes, including: The Circle of Life, Our Shared Origins, Ancient Wisdom, Sacred Geography, Endangered, Globalization, Ritual and Passages, Beauty, Quest for Spirit and Joy of Culture.
Think you’ve seen everything? How about Mongolian women herding reindeer? Or an Inuit hunter striding an ice floe off Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada? They’re here, along with a group of Shaolin monks from China’s Henan Province shown hanging from their toes, male charm dancers at the annual Gerewol festival in Niger and the courtship ritual practiced in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea.
Sornuk Valley, Hovsgol Province, Outer Mongolia. A Duhalar child falls asleep on a white reindeer as her mother milks the herd nearby. Photo © Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
The images capture the last nomads in the rainforests of Borneo, Tibetan Buddhists in Nepal, the ceremonies of the Lakota tribe in South Dakota, an Ethiopian bull-jumping ceremony and the bonding of mother and child in countries all over the world.
The exhibition also poses a fundamental question, according to the press materials: “What does it mean to be human and alive?”
The show considers how we experience the world in such diverse ways, and how, despite such extreme differences, a shared humanity still exists. It also explores what such surviving ancient customs and tribal beliefs might offer our modern society not only because they are valuable historically, but also because they’re disappearing fast. As our world encroaches on theirs, as rainforests and glaciers shrink, and climate changes, these cultures will be forced to adapt — and many will vanish. And if the world one day becomes a globalized, homogenized culture — what else will be lost?
Davis, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, is also an ethno-botanist. For more than 30 years, he has studied plants in the Amazon and Andes, living among native tribes, as well as traveling all over the globe. Davis is also a passionate spokesperson for diversity — in plants, in culture and for the planet. This exhibition is an expression of that sensibility, celebrating the fact that life, for all beings, is a journey from birth to death, however different the path.
It is also a reminder that there is a price to pay when civilizations are reduced to memento mori, when a people’s rituals and way of life fade away — when what is becomes what was.
“No strangers” continues at the Annenberg Space for Photography through Feb. 24, 2013.