Glorious, lush nature abounds on our green-hued Island, but Jennifer Smith Turner’s exhibition “A Glimpse of Africa” will transport you to a very different terrain — that found on safari in Kenya.
Although a year-round resident, Turner and her husband always seek out exciting new travel adventures. This year they traveled extensively throughout Africa. “As I started to gather photos for this exhibit, it occurred to me that most of the photographs I chose as my favorites came from the safari experience,” Turner says.
One of the things you’ll notice about Turner’s images is how close or far away we are from her subject matter. For instance, in one image a herd of elephants and their calves seem to be about to walk right by us. “We were so close to the elephants that I asked our guide, Are we safe?’” Turner says. “His comment was that as long as we stay in the safari jeep, the elephants view it as a large animal just like themselves, so we’re fine. But, he cautioned, do not step out of the jeep. The elephants were using the muddy water to cool their bodies as they strolled from one section of the plains to another.”
Lions are a quintessential photograph trophy, and Turner gives a triptych of the “king of the jungle” that honors both his ferocious potential and quietly brings to mind our domestic house cats as he slumbers, rolls over, and licks his giant paw. Turner says, “The lion in three poses is intriguing. He had no concern about our watching him as he languished in the midday sun. It was as though his movements said, ‘Mmm, tasty, now for some zzz’s, rub my belly — I dare you.’” Meanwhile, in another work, the central lioness of a group tranquilly sunning themselves, gazes dispassionately right at us.
While the hippos, all but submerged in water, seem to be going about their business without a care, they nonetheless have us in their sights. As Turner shares, “The hippos look like they are peeking at us as we stand at the top of the ridge looking down at them. We almost ran into one of the hippos one evening when we were out at dinner. To see it out of the water was to get a full sense of the enormous size and tonnage of each hippo.”
We are far, far away from the giraffe who stands dead center looking toward us in another photograph. The parasol tree top provides shade and it, along with the two others on either side farther back, emphasize the creature’s supreme elegance.
A favorite of Turner’s is an image of a baby elephant readily tipping a huge bottle into his mouth with two men looking on. “At the elephant orphanage, the baby elephants would come rumbling through the trees to the pit where their handlers would feed them,” Turner said. “In the photograph, you see the handler in the green jacket with an enormous bottle and the baby elephant hungrily sucking in his morning breakfast of what I believe was milk. After they finish their bottles, the elephants would roll around in the red clay dust and mud where we, the tourists, could see them up close. They were friendly enough that we could reach out and actually touch them. It was a fascinating experience.”
Turner doesn’t just photograph animals. She says of one piece in which a beautiful girl enigmatically looks at us through the camera’s lens, “I was particularly struck by the young Maasai girl who, when I asked her if I could take her photograph, became very shy and covered her face with the colorful cloth that you see in the photograph. But just beneath that cloth was a huge smile and I believe her smile sparkles in her eyes.”
Referring to the Maasai elder resting on the ground, Turner says, “He was watching us as we interacted with the other Maasai men and women and the young girls at the market in their village. I turned and saw him lying there with the tree stump so close to him it looked as though he was posing for the shot, but he wasn’t. It was a candid shot. As with all of the people we photographed, before we took any photos I asked for permission. He seemed pleased that I wanted to capture his image.”
All of Turner’s pieces have a quiet energy to them, except one brimming with a crowd of raucous children and a few women standing off to the side. Turner explains, “The group of children on Goree Island in Senegal were waiting in line to board the ferry to return to the mainland. We were disembarking the ferry at the time that I captured this photograph. They were having a fun Sunday partying and picnicking and frolicking in the water all throughout the day. What is particularly interesting about this is that the island is the most western point of Africa and it was where most of the slave ships would set sail for the Americas, the holds packed with enslaved Africans. It is now a museum and also a holiday spot where children and their families come to enjoy the sun and the sea. I’m not sure if the children know the history of Goree Island, perhaps the elders do.
“When taking these photographs, I was not thinking about what others would see or react to. But now as I see them on the wall, and have people viewing them and chatting and getting close to them, I hope what people see is an image of Africa that is magical because of the beauty of the wildlife that is there, that is beautiful because of the people and the lives that they live, and that it is a place that we should all want to visit.”
“A Glimpse of Africa” is open through August 25 at the Feldman Family Artspace at the M.V. Film Center in Vineyard Haven.