Photographer David Ballam and his Turkana Portraits

For South African photographer, David Ballam, it is the Turkana people that inhabit the Kenyan Rift Valley desert lake region that are most inspiring and intriguing:

“With customs, traditions, beliefs and beauty as deep as the lake waters, the people – and landscape – of Lake Turkana left me reeling in insignificance.”

And in this body of his work, the subject matter is as much the gorgeous jewellery worn as it is the loveliness of the wearer.

‘Nakaparaparal’ or aluminium earrings are the trademark of the Turkana people and the women wear elaborate beaded necklaces which reflect their social status. They can weigh up to 5kg and never take them off unless they’re ill or in mourning for a relative. A woman who cannot move her neck is envied and men avoid women who don’t wear beaded necklaces! These are examples of the elaborate adornment style of the stately Turkana people.

Ostrich eggshell beads are the oldest known man-made bead, dating back to around 70,000 B.C. during the African Middle Stone Age. They are a popular form of adornment amongst the Turkana. Tribeswomen make them by chipping the tough shell into rough shapes using stones or their teeth.

Furthermore, for the Turkana yellow and red beads are given to a girl by a man when they become engaged. Married women will wear a plain metal ring (alagama) around the neck, which has the same function as a wedding ring. If a woman wears only white beads, it means she is a widow.

Turkana women also wear beaded bangles which usually consist of over 500 beads elegantly handcrafted to produce spherical layers. They also attach beads to loose ends of their hair and shave the remainder. More unusually today, older women still wear labrets that cut through their lower lips.

Thus, as with many cultures, Turkana jewellery holds a hidden message that tells us something personal about the wearer. It is used to distinguish between age groups, developmental stages, occasions and status of individuals or groups in the community. This concept brings to mind current jewellery trends where contemporary adornment is concerned with upcycling everyday objects into treasures and an array of collaborations which ‘breathe new life’ into cans and shells. Cowry shells, glass, iron and ostrich eggshells in adornment are always trendy and their textures and beautiful forms are still as alluring as ever.

David Ballam explores Africa creating images that transcend the subject matter into fine art. We ourselves may seldom get an opportunity such as his to travel there, but we can experience the beauty of the Turkana people and their elaborate embellishment through the skilled photographer’s lens. With his astute and sensitive eye, Ballam’s atmospheric portraits of the Turkana and their complex language of jewellery will resonate with us for time.

-Sandy Bekker