Peter Beard’s singular exhibition at the National Photography Center is “Out of Africa” and out of this world. Both disturbing and hauntingly beautiful, the photographer’s assemblage works, personal journals, documentary films and magnificent blown-up images create a total environment that transports the visitor on an intense African safari.
This amazing retrospective exhibit is built around the diaries and notebooks Beard has kept since the ’50s. The assorted journals are collage works of articles, phone numbers, drawings, photos, seashells, dead insects and hastily scribbled quotes. Ephemeral and funky, the diaries are actually artist’s books; they are presented stacked in piles as an installation or open to selected pages in glass-cases, with partial segments blown-up as giant photos that highlight the artistic influences of the painter Francis Bacon, a close friend. On another note, the diaries are a voyeur’s delight and document a more frivolous decade, when Beard (once married to model Cheryl Tiegs) often haunted New York’s Studio 54 until the wee hours with Andy Warhol’s pack of fashionable friends.
There are endless surprises throughout the show. Several monumental black and white photos are bordered with whimsical colored drawings by African artists Mwangi and Kivoi, who have collaborated on a series of major works with the photographer. Superb nude models vie for attention with photogenic beasts. Fine portraits of Jackie O., her sister Lee Radziwill and other famous personalities are fun to discover amidst the journals, and a number of blown-up photographs have been decorated with quotes by Beard or presented within a larger image of colored rocks and seashells. A series taken from a crocodile study for the Kenya Game Department includes a shocking blow-up of a cardboard box containg the remains of two human feet. The caption reads: “We told him not to go swimming.”
The show’s point of departure is an amusing photo-montage tribute to Karen Blixen, the Danish writer whose famous African memoire begins with the line “I had a farm in Africa…” The photographer met Blixen in 1961 before beginning his own African adventure. Blixen’s experience of Africa as a vaste, untamed land with herds of animals running free is suggested in several stunning images. It was the Garden of Eden described by explorers in the 19th century, a land where nature is omnipresent and animals reign. This Africa still existed when Beard first visited in 1955 at age 17. The large open spaces and the possibility of losing oneself in nature drew him back to Kenya a few years later. However, the grandeur and harmony of Africa, so beautifully depicted in Blixen’s book, is fast disappearing.
When Beard first bought his land, Hog Farm, in the Ngong Hills he was living in the wild. Now Nairobi’s spreading suburbs and shanty-towns have caught up with him, and increasingly he has trained his camera to focus on the anguishing reality of Africa today. Several of his books have documented the destruction of Africa’s environment and wildlife.
In the show, images taken from a new edition of “The End of the Game” move the viewer deftly through the savannah, tracking the tragic plight of 40,000 elephants in Tsavo National Park. Tsavo was once the largest wildlife park in Kenya, encompassing over 20,000 square kilometers. During the ’60s an expanding human population began encroaching on the natural reserve. As the human population increased, the protected elephant population did as well. Enclosed in their park, the elephants found themselves encircled and their food supply decreasing. In desperation they attempted to eat the baobab trees, bark and all. Many died of blocked intestines, malnutrition and heart failure. And then the draught came. The national park became a no-man’s-land, a desert of red dust stretching to the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. The tragedy that killed thousands of elephants touched all the wildlife in the savannah. Some 4,000 rhinoceros perished as well.
Unhappily, at the end of the 20th century much of the African continent ressembles Tsavo National Park. Beard has become an artist with a mission, carefully documenting the dramatic misuse of the environment with stark images of death on a monumental scale. His aerial views of decomposing elephant carcasses are a shocking and strangely poetic sight. In 1978, Bacon wrote of them:
“Over the years, Peter Beard has given me many of his beautiful photographs; for me the most poignant are the ones of decomposing elephants where, over time, as they disintegrate, the bones form magnificent sculpture, sculpture which is not just abstract form but has all the memory traces of life’s futility and despair.”
In the show there is a powerful blow-up of a charging elephant. The photograph is nearly life-size, and extremely impressive. A child viewing the image alongside me solemnly remarked, “Babar is mad.” On September 9, Beard and a friend were charged by a raging elephant on Masai territory near Tanzania. The friend, Calvin Cottar, a safari specialist, described Beard’s remarkable survival by first insisting it was “a miracle.”
“When Peter fell he grabbed one of the elephant’s feet and was flung through the air. A tusk went through his left hip and his pelvis was crushed by the cow elephant’s massive head. The furious elephant should have killed him several times over when she had him at her mercy. Why didn’t she do it? We’ll never really know.”
Perhaps, even in her rage, the elephant sensed that she was with one of the planet’s most ardent defenders of the elephant world and the precious little that is left of Africa’s wild, open spaces.