The Africa of the contemporary popular press is notoriously a zone of warfare, natural disaster and political sleaze - a place where all the bad news of the planet lives and everyone not a despot is a refugee. This Africa, naturally, makes no actual appearance within the sumptuous covers of African Ceremonies . Yet it is not entirely absent either. Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher allow hateful modernity to lower villainously offstage, casting its long shadow and so dramatically endangering another Africa that is the subject of these two volumes - a pure and uncorrupted place of country folk living according to ancient and harmonious natural rhythms that have remained unchanged since the dawn of time. The stated justification of this publication is that it records that which is about to disappear for ever.
This is very much an airbrushed Africa, a sort of Maasai Vogue . None of the chubby and smiling children featured here has a snot trail or a festering sore on its leg and certainly never dreams of growing up to be a dictator. There are no politicians, merely kings of ancient dynasties with their crowns firmly in place and their robes well pressed. Ordinary human beings are transformed into beautiful ebony sculptures, dramatic silhouettes, whirling vortices and limpid forms posed in a landscape of staggering power and breathtaking sunsets. All these people are members of happy, caring communities living in easy balance with nature. They spend their time within the pages, singing, dancing and just looking good. The fashion police have excised the ugly. These are very, very beautiful books indeed.
Most of the pictures are new. The fact that one or two, for example the bead-corseted Dinka youth and the Turkana girl with the fish on her head, seem to have been lifted from previous works simply shows their power. After all, how many pictures promote that sort of instant recall? The colours are stunning, the detailing sharp and well observed, the lighting both revealing and artistic. The faces, whether young and beautiful or old and seamed with wisdom, speak to us seductively across the void of cultural and linguistic difference and assert a common humanity. This is perhaps the chief attraction and danger of books such as this. They make us think we have understood that which we merely responded to aesthetically.
In the public ceremonies, the subjects emerge mostly as willing and enthusiastic collaborators. After all, in the face of the world everyone is happy to be seen looking their best. Yet the authors have also gained access to the most surprisingly personal of areas and do so with great delicacy and without the least sense of intrusive voyeurism.
The authors wander over vast areas of Africa - Ghana, Benin, Kenya, South Africa, Senegal, Morocco, Namibia and many more. Inevitably, much of the continent is left untouched so that we can hope for further volumes. There are many old friends here - the Fulani, the Asante, the Maasai, the Yoruba, the Dogon and the Imilchil Brides' Fair but also some exciting new images such as the Ndebele "Spietkops" (ladies in astonishing beadwork police uniforms) and the Taneka clowns who perform in joyful and blatant violation of Clause 28.
Unsurprisingly, it is the few sections where contemporary Africa is allowed to leak into the essential and timeless Africa of ceremony that the pictures are at their most interesting and arresting. Perhaps - we daringly think - we are in the presence of a great simplification. Could it even be that Africa is not, after all, about to disappear?
Organisation has clearly been a problem. The books are subdivided into the various standard life events - birth, puberty, marriage, death and so on - that crisscross and double back over the different peoples featured - but when this proves insufficient, secondary headings such as "Royalty and power", "Beliefs and worship" and "Spirits and ancestors" are pressed willy-nilly into service to justify the pictures that really need no justification beyond their own quality.
Documentation of the photographs occurs on at least three distinct levels. First, there are captions that contain a deal of precise and useful information on what is actually going on in the picture, the characters as individuals and their relationships. Mostly these are irreproachable and quite a lot in them is new and, one hopes, reliable.
Then there are sub-sections such as Maasai circumcision, whose content, based on a cannibalisation of the standard sources, is rather more wobbly and erratic. Maasai, for example, do not practise a form of male cutting that is unique. The Torajans of Sulawesi perform the same operation. Unlike the impressive agonies signified by Maasai youths and accepted at face value by the authors, however, the cutting is treated by Torajans as such a minor thing that boys do it to each other and parents may not be aware that it has happened. Suffering, too, can be a form of cultural performance. Millions of Africans will be similarly astonished to hear the truth, confidently vouchsafed here, that birth out of wedlock is universally a disaster for a girl.
Even more doubtful are the introductions to the separate thematic sections that reduce African cosmic notions to a Patience Strong environmental sensibility that is more Californian than Kalaharian. The world is cheerfully peopled with spirits and spirituality as if the religious statements of alien cultures were unproblematically transparent, as if ritual were a simple bolt-on category adding a bit of depth to reality, as if nature were universally benign and ancestors usually benevolent as opposed to routinely vicious and self-seeking. It is hardly surprising that ringing declarations of such vast generality are mere empty vol-au-vent shells. Given the actual diversity of Africa, it is hard to see how they could be anything else.
The orthodoxies of political correctness reign supreme between these covers. Female circumcision may be treated with a tut and a raised eyebrow but it is stoutly defended in the name of ethnic authenticity. However, any pain involved in male circumcision can be dismissed as all about "showing manliness". In the ethnography, men are allowed to hit men but not to whip women.
As pictures of Africa, African Ceremonies is outstanding; as a vision of Africa it is hopelessly flawed. Look, do not read.
Nigel Barley is assistant keeper of ethnography, Museum of Mankind.
Author - Carol Beckwith
ISBN - 0 8109 4205 4
Publisher - Abrams
Price - £95.00 (two volumes)
Pages - 744