Prairie Wolves in Print: I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb

Reviewed by Susan Horn, assistant professor of art

By Betty Press (’64), proverbs compiled by Annetta Miller

184 pages | Books for Africa, 2011 | $40

The book I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb is a superb collection of photographs that is rich in subject matter, form and content. The photographer, Betty Press, thoughtfully shares her insight about the African society where she lived and worked for eight years from 1987 to 1995 and has photographed for over 20 years. Each one of the well-conceived and beautifully printed black and white photographs is accompanied by an instructional African proverb. The result is a distinct and unifying theme that takes the viewer through a range of emotions about family, relationships, home, friendship, traditions, joy, sorrow, spirituality and impermanence.

Betty Press presents her subjects with warmth, compassion and respect. She carefully aids our understanding that her subjects have great depth and resolve. These portrayals mix the old with the new; the traditional values with the modern world.

The Kenyan proverb, “An uninitiated man is a child,” on page 55 is accompanied with an image of a youth from southern Sudan who is part of an initiation ceremony that marks the passage into manhood. Press uses very shallow depth of field to isolate a plane of his head that renders the surface detail of one eye, ear, hair and the exquisite surface of his painted skin. This detail is amazing to look at, but Press also gives us the intimate experience of being a part of this moment. The concentrated gaze that the youth makes allows us to feel the psychological immensity of this day.

Page 92 presents a photograph with the Congolese proverb, “The footprint of one person is narrow.” The subject of this horizontal photograph is a Malian woman from the hips down who is dressed in a traditionally patterned dress. She is standing in a courtyard that has recently been hand-decorated with a distinctive whitewash pattern to celebrate the annual Peul Crossing of the Cattle Festival. This optical cat’s-paw decoration was made by fingers dipped in whitewash and covers the ground of the courtyard and continues into the doorway of the house. The woman’s dress and sandals add to this visual illusion to activate the viewer’s perception of space. The pattern seems transient because time, weather and footprints will begin to wear this decorative artwork away. This combination of patterns is joyful and celebrates tradition, yet marks time and invites us in to be a part of this slice of time and space. In a year, the pattern probably will be worn away and the process will begin again.

Press worked with Annetta Miller, an American born in Tanzania, who compiled the African proverbs over the 30 years that she lived in Eastern Africa. This book is published in partnership with Books for Africa (booksforafrica.com), whose mission is to end the book famine in Africa.

Press has an undergraduate degree from Nebraska Wesleyan University. She also audited a year of photography at the School of Art at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor while her husband was a journalism fellow with the Knight Wallace Fellowship for Journalists. She has worked as an international photojournalist and an adjunct professor of photography at the University of Southern Mississippi. She lives in Hattiesburg, Miss., and exhibits her work widely.

Find more photos at bettypress.com.