Chester Higgins Jr. has traveled to Africa every year since 1971 as a way to meditate, disconnect and examine his life. Through the experience of photographing new people and places, his art both shapes and reflects his narrative. And nowhere is that truer for him than in Ethiopia, a place that has long enchanted him.
“It’s a great relief to step out of my comfort zone and live in a place for six weeks without having to worry about how people react to me,” said Mr. Higgins, whose work from Ethiopia is on display beginning this month at the Skoto Gallery in New York. “I think the problem we have as artists in America is pretty soon you can get locked into a paradigm that inhibits your creative expansion. One gains a cognitive freedom when you embrace the understanding that the world is much larger than your immediate reality. When I travel to Ethiopia or Africa I’m not in search of something exotic, I’m in search of reflections of myself. In Ethiopia, I’m no longer in a society where I am a minority. I am the majority.”
Mr. Higgins, a former staff photographer for The New York Times, has published several collections, including “Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa.”
“You would never travel to Africa if you listened to the news,” Mr. Higgins said. “I wanted people who couldn’t travel to get a feel from the book of what people are like elsewhere to expand horizons and perspectives.”
He first went to Ethiopia in 1973, prompted by news that African heads of state were gathering for an Organization of African Unity meeting in Addis Ababa. On that trip, he met and photographed the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, and other heads of state. Taken by the calm sense of self he found among the Ethiopian people, he returned the following year to see other parts of the country.
“What I felt amazed me,” said Mr. Higgins, 68. “Ethiopians are a very proud people. Due to their isolation and history, other people are less important to them than they are to themselves. This sense of certainty is how they manage their lives.”
Ethiopia is the only African nation that defeated an invading European army and maintained its independence. Ethiopians refer to their country as “The Land of Our Fathers,” and the fight to maintain it pumps the blood in their hearts.
“Their sense of pride is reinforced by their history, culture and environment,” Mr. Higgins said. “That’s not to say there aren’t problems, but there’s still a sense of awareness the people have among themselves and their culture. They live without being insecure about what they don’t know or what other people have that could rob them of who they are.”
Those who live in the northern part of the country are highlanders, residing on mountains that rise 6,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level. Many Christians, Hebrews and Muslims have a monastic way of life and believe the only way to get close to God is to eliminate worldly distractions. Some Christian monasteries are atop mountains or on island lakes. There is a sense that the subterranean world is a type of spiritual cocoon.
In Ethiopia, church starts around 4 a.m. and ends at sunrise. This country is where Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians believe the Ark of Covenant resides, and ruins from the time of Sheba, who is mentioned in the Bible, are found there.
The spirit and culture of the people in Ethiopia run deep, Mr. Higgins says. When visiting, he does not stay in the capital, preferring the remoteness of the country, which has layers of ancient beliefs, traditions and culture, all with a unique ancient personality.
“It has taken me decades to get closer to the people and the culture,” he said. “I know I’m an outsider. As I learn more, I dive deeper in this water. I feel like our society is not as well grounded. We get our reference points from artificiality. Most of us are far removed from a sense of being connected to nature.”
That sensation can be intense, especially at night.
“The stars are right on top of you at night,” he said. “Only in Ethiopia do you feel you can reach up and touch the floor of heaven. Parts of it look like the Grand Canyon. Other parts are up in the clouds.”
Mr. Higgins’s exhibition at the Skoto Gallery, which runs from May 21 through June 20, is titled “Zéma,” which means melody. The exhibit includes landscapes, portraits and abstract imagery honoring ancestral spirits along the Blue Nile River.
“It’s my melody, my love song to Ethiopia. Obviously for me to go back for so many years, using my own money, I must be in love,” Mr. Higgins said, laughing. “I’ve never had an Ethiopian girlfriend, but I’m in love with the place. I share their love for their people, their culture and their history and for their present and future.”
Chester Higgins Jr.’s work from Ethiopia is on display this month at the Skoto Gallery in New York through June 20.
Fayemi Shakur is a writer based in Newark. Her work has been featured online and in print in Nueva Luz Photographic Journal, The International Review of African American Art, and Hycide Magazine.
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