SIGHTINGS OF THE SACRED: CATTLE IN INDIA, UGANDA AND MADAGASCAR
The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man. John Berger (Why we look at animals)
For me observing cattle is a form of meditation, a form of therapy that actuates through intense visual engagement. The effects of this undertaking are similar to the serenity brought on by gazing at the waves of the ocean. I use portraiture photography to capture that serenity: a poised stillness that I perceive as a radiant presence in itself and that I recognize as mutuality between landscape, animal, and myself. This mutuality can be extended to the viewer through photography.
Like many wild African animals today Ankole cattle are appreciated for their exoticism. They are creatures that seem to belong to ancient, wild, pre-civilized times and lands, uninhabited by the human race. Western big-game hunters hunted the Ankole as they would lions or buffalo, their enormous horns collected as trophies to decorate the walls of the European aristocracy’s mansions. My own attraction to these animals was in a similar vein – I found them peculiarly beautiful, outlandish - their horns too heavy and unwieldy for effective defence or predatory assertion, their bodies and demeanour too fine and stately for unassisted survival in the wild. To photograph them was to possess and preserve their beauty, perhaps to fulfil their odd beseeching for human ownership.
Ugandan cattle owners placed their cattle in game reserves to safeguard them against outbreeding, a practice that is reminiscent of protecting wild animals against extinction by preserving their territory. In the case of the Ugandan cattle that I portray in this series of photographs, crossbreeding with Holstein cattle is the threat against which their owners fight. In crossbreeding lies an interesting paradox. Cattle farmers worldwide practice it to ensure their cattle’s optimum productivity or, in some cases, their survival, especially when a breed does not have the necessary qualities for surviving harsh territories. At the same time, crossbreeding is a certain way of steering a breed to extinction.
What interests me is the length to which humans go to protect their animals against threats of any kind, whether that of extinction or of outbreeding. I have always been interested in the protection of certain breeds of animal, also the alertness of people when they wake up and see that an animal could be bred out to extinction.
I portray an Ankole-African Buffalo cross, the result of a form of crossbreeding that ironically evolves from keeping Ankole in game reserves, a practice intended to protect them against outbreeding brought on by the deliberate introduction of the Holstein cattle breed. Statistics show that Ankole cattle could be outbred within the next 40 years due to crossbreeding with the Holstein breed, which produces more milk and therefore provides a higher income. Both the spontaneous crossbreeding of Ankole with African Buffalo and the controlled crossbreeding of Ankole with Holstein certainly predict the Ankole breed’s extinction. A first generation Ankole-Buffalo cross shows smaller horns. Sadly, in Rwanda the cattle of the kings, a long horn from the Watusi cattle, are already extinct. The distance between the tips of their enormous horns could reach lengths of two to three meters. I cannot help wondering whether the protection of game reserves would in fact have ensured the long horn’s survival.
To many Ugandans, the loss of the Watusi implies the loss of cultural wealth and knowledge. The animal is associated with bygone royalty, a connotation perhaps enhanced by the animal’s composed dignity and strength – or what I sense as `the radiance of its presence’: in the Ankole breed this still attains materiality in the animal’s enormous horns. The Ugandan cattle owners’ desperate efforts to preserve the purity of the Ankole breed are also about preserving and protecting the pre-colonial and indigenous cultural capital of their ancient culture.
I think at the core of this lies the animal’s otherworldly aura of brilliance which quietly projects an uncanny sense of its privileged occupation of another life-world. This is a life forever out of reach for the commoner human at whom it can only gaze with aloof bewilderment.
Photographing encounters between the Ankole and myself involved seizing an exact singular moment of myself almost merging with the animals’ presence. Selecting images involves a more critical distance: it is a careful, subjective process of selecting the most apt rewriting of the Ankole’s radiance. This rewriting would ensure its continued functioning as mutuality between the viewer, the animal, the landscape, and myself. I believe painters strive to achieve the same presence in paintings of animals through their oscillations between capture and distance, between brush stroke and gaze. These oscillations are much slower than in photography, but are related.
My encounters in Uganda triggered the desire to extend the project, perhaps to go back in history and track the origin of the present-day head of cattle. A visit to Paris highlighted Madagascar as another source of discovery. In the Musée Du Quai Branly I saw a funeral post of the Madagascan Bara tribe. The post was decorated with Zebu skulls, which prompted me to travel to Madagascar. Once there, I travelled to the fady (forbidden) tombs that are situated four days drive south of a small town called Sakaraha. On my way there I photographed Zebu at a cattle market in Ambalavao.
My focus in Madagascar differed from that in Uganda. Madagascar – part African and part Indian – necessitates going back in time. It is a raw and remote country that still maintains the simple technologies of ancient times and for each inhabitant life revolves around survival. In some areas people still trade rather than buying and selling. They prefer to spend any money they might earn on buying Zebu, rather than investing it in banks. In contrast to the almost religious awe in which the Ugandans held their cattle, it soon became evident to me that the cattle of Madagascar played dual roles in their owners’ lives: on the one hand, cattle is capital that ensures its owner’s survival. Interaction between animal and human is that of husbandry, a relationship in which dominance shifts from animal to human to become a deranged and harsh tryst between master and slave. The Zebu is employed to pull ancient ploughs and carts or wagons that still run on wooden wheels. Cross or outbreeding poses no threat to the Zebu since no other breeds exist on the island. On the other hand, the people believe that their cattle have supernatural functions. Again, I focused my interest on interactions between animal, human, and landscape, but now with a different emphasis.
I was struck by what seemed to be a quiet patience in the animals, their bearing so ostensibly resigned to accepting their humans’ claims to ownership. However, that is in fact never really possible in the forever-hidden footings that the animals’ otherworldly sphere of existence frames. They carry their forbearance without sacrificing the dignity of their Ankole brothers and sisters, suggesting between Ankole and Zebu a connecting thread that perhaps tracks their physical journeys between continents and islands. Yet, to my mind, resignation had to some extent replaced radiance, submission and forbearance hovering where brilliance should be.
The concept of fady steered my understanding in a different direction. Apart from being instrumental in the labours of agriculture and, by extension, their owners’ survival, the Zebu fulfilled a far more ethereal role in Malagasy culture. The Malagasy burial grounds are forbidden territories to foreigners. Closely interwoven with the Malagasy regard for cattle is a conception of the cattle beast as a vehicle to the hereafter, a magical function that they perform in the forbidden areas where their owners rest after death. The Zebu skull and horns that decorate the funeral posts of humans are meant to represent the Zebu that will transport them, while the Zebu as sacrificial animal serves to provide sustenance on these spiritual journeys as much as it provides sustenance to the gods. While these spiritual abilities are believed to strengthen the Zebu in their lives of labour, they are far more vital to their owners’ spiritual well being.
In Madagascar I encountered an additional phenomenon interwoven with the belief in the mystical gifts of Zebu. Some Malagasy tribes find in certain trees the same mystical presence that they believe to be in their cattle, crediting these trees with similar powers of transporting humans to the afterlife. In my work, I also started to explore the trees as subject matter carrying the same weighty presence as the animals I love to portray.
To complete the series I travelled to India, where Hindus regard cattle as an earthly form of divinity. Their deep respect and love for the cow and bull represents to me another dimension in the interactions between humans and cattle, namely that of spirituality. As the protector of Shiva’s celestial dwelling, Nandi the Bull is a major figure in Hinduism. I travelled to the southern regions of India to photograph the Mattu Pongal festival, an annual celebration in honour of the cattle that play a vital role in preparing the soil for planting, raising the crops, and finally bringing in the harvests.
In contrast to the almost undisturbed landscapes of Africa and Madagascar, I found lands so cluttered with the debris of civilization that I felt rather disappointed at first. Telephone and electricity wiring are everywhere; road signs and buildings occupy a never-ending urban landscape housing humans and cattle in equal number. The contrast between landscape and animal soon became central to the photographs of cows that I took in India. The busy, cluttered lands, filled to the brim with evidence of human inhabitation and where the cattle live and work freely with people, also emphasize the otherworldliness of the animals’ almost bizarre presence there, creating a strong dialectic that adds meaning.
In India spirituality is central to life. The multi-facetted Indian culture connotes divinity in all natural elements – in trees, anthills, mountains, rivers, and animals. Trees become shrines; they impart the same aura of divinity as cattle, providing space for worship as holy as temples. The people create representations of animals as earthly incarnations of their gods and the bull and cow are core characters in this rich theatre of spirituality.
Sensing the qualities I describe above, in the bearing of both animal and landscape, informs the range of subjective prompts within the complexities of the processes of discernment I conduct during my process of photographing. Finally I produce what I intend to be my particular subjectivities as portraits of individual animals. By extension then, such a broadened range would elicit emotional and subjective range in the viewing audience’s readings of my work, each viewer uniquely experiencing and reinterpreting the animals’ bearing where it stands in its particular space.
The extent to which I impose control over the photograph stretches to technicalities such as the particular height of the lens above the ground, the position of the horizon in relation to animal and frame, and the distance between the lens and the animal. My decision to take any particular photograph of an animal emerges from reciprocity between us, rather than from stage-acting a whole show. The act of taking the photograph does not entail any control over the animal’s stance, as would be customary in portraiture of humans. The animal’s bearing cannot be arranged or controlled by me, the photographer. It does not pose; there is in it no pretence or acting, no affectation. Despite this, or maybe because of it, I manage to capture individuality and character, creating portraits rather than records or documentations of perfect specimens. The animal’s stance is honest, direct, and unscripted by the norms and dictates of beauty or eminence of any kind. The landscape in which the animal stands offers no idyllic stage, no specially demarcated theatre, no fictitious backdrop to heighten the illusion of distinction or narrative. The landscapes within which they dwell – Africa, Madagascar, and India - could enhance or contradict these animals’ bearing and it is possible to perceive in landscape an equally strong presence similar or different to that of the animal’s attendance. As such, landscape becomes a highly significant vehicle in my photographs that expands the range of expression in portraying the animal, touching on origin, history, utilization, and the liminal, all contributing to their aura, which I wish the viewer to also experience.
Finally I can say that my travels to these three countries brought new understanding of the ancient lineages that connect the cattle I encountered in Africa, Madagascar, and India. I became aware of another connection that remains visible in their bearing, a stance they carry to this day, notwithstanding their homelands. The cattle from all three places I visited bear an aura of reciprocity; I sense in them an unknown, hidden being present in this world, something that is measured less in bloodline and physicality, more in conscious awareness. That presence – their radiance that enriches human interaction with them to the extent that they shape cultures – is the subject of my work. It is capable of breaking through the language and cultural barriers that seasoned travellers experience on their journeys through foreign countries.
To my mind, it is also this liminal realm that shapes connections between animal, land, and myself so that when I photograph them I can recognize an animal’s individuality, those characteristics and bodily expressions that outline uniqueness in personality. Although these understandings soften the unanswerability of many of my searches, they at least make me realize that the more I discover about animals, the less I know.