Ethiopian art in Dubai

New DIFC exhibition showcases portraits of indigenous African tribes

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Mario Marino talks to Peter Feely about his portraits featuring the indigenous population of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia that form part of an exhibition highlighting globalisation and modernisation on the continent.

In 2011 Austrian photographer Mario Marino took a trip to the Omo Valley in Ethiopia to capture the region’s local tribes. The results are now part of an exhibition at The Empty Quarter entitled ‘Africa From Mother to Motherboard’, a show where Marino’s pictures are juxtaposed against portraits of Ghana by German photo journalist Kai Löffelbein. The raw images by Löffelbein depicting the chaos and pollution as people hunt through rubbish tips in Ghana’s capital Accra provides a striking contrast to Marino’s beautiful and dignified images of African tribes people.

Based in Germany, Marino has travelled the world photographing indigenous communities in their native lands, making connections with individuals and taking their portraits.

On the subject of his latest photographic adventure, Marino reveals that he regards the modern Africa as ‘T-shirt land’, where the impoverished population wear cheap Chinese-made vests, while recalling that he had to travel 700km from Ethiopia’s capital Addis Abada to get the real essence of the country. And this is the place that Marino was searching for. ‘This small area close to the border [the Omo Valley], is where people are really connected with nature’, he explains, referring to it as the ‘real Africa’.

The photographer’s three-and-a-half day journey across rough roads to the Omo Valley was inspired by an article he’d read about the discovery of the oldest human skull on Earth that was found there several years earlier. The article about the 240,000-year-old remains, titled ‘Africa The Motherland’, reflects the belief that the area in southern Ethiopia was the location of the origins of the human race, and that became the catalyst for Marino’s project.

Having worked as an assistant in an art gallery in Berlin for ten years, the 47-year-old used his time to study composition and the work of great photographers. ‘I was interested in the works of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn – the old masters from the 20th century.

I bought books and from time to time I bought vintage photography.’

The most remarkable attributes of Marino’s images however must be the use of natural light and a screen to shoot pictures that initially appear like studio portraits of his subjects. Yet, according to Marino, this is just a case of having a keen eye for light.

‘I use a normal camera – nothing special – it’s a Nikon that I got for Dhs5,000 with a good lens and that’s it. If you have a feeling for daylight you can throw it really well and you can be free without too
much stuff.’

The resulting collection has been a huge success for Marino, revealing that his photograph entitled Malega Surma Boy has been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Elsewhere, his photos have been on show in various locations around the world for more than three years.

Marino says that these images are wholly inspired by his fascination with the human face. ‘I’m always looking for a great face and what you can do is see a charming or interesting face and then look inside the person.’

The works on show in Dubai are printed on a special type of matt paper, which is hand-made by the German-based Hahnemühle company. According to Marino, this adds a sense of realism that allows you to ‘feel you can touch the clothes and person’. He’s equally enthusiastic about The Empty Quarter gallery, explaining that the venue’s owners, Safa Al Hamed and HRH Princess Reem Mohammed Al Faisal Al Saud, do sterling work championing internationally acclaimed exhibitions.

Talking of one of these shows, Marino says: ‘In February, Roland Michaud, a French photographer will have an exhibition. He’s 83 years old and he went in the ’50s with his wife on a horse to Afghanistan. He stayed in Afghanistan for five years and then he went back to Paris with his wife.’

Next, Marino is hoping to travel to Saudi Arabia with the Paris-based Saudi princess from The Empty Quarter and is also hoping to return to Rajasthan and Kashmir in India to add to his 80 photographs so that he can publish a book of his works. He says he will simply walk around to capture his portraits, as ‘the street is a wonderful teacher’.

As to any thoughts of slowing down, Marino refers us to a quote by 20th century photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. ‘I’m always in perfect shape – I’m walking every day between 20 and 18 hours.’

The Lowdown

Exhibition: ‘Africa From Mother to Motherboard’ runs until January 23 at The Empty Quarter, Gate Village, Building 2, DIFC (04 323 1210).
Artists: Mario Marino and Kai Löffelbein
Prices: On request

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