Capturing a continent's love of the Beautiful Game

Last Updated 09 July 2010, 16:40 IST

She found it in villages where children played with joyous abandon on dusty patches of ground, sandy beaches and lush fields, far from the stadiums where Africa’s first World Cup were held.

She captured their sense of play in lyrical images hanging now in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Brussels galleries. Gleeful little boys in Burkina Faso leap in exultation as their team scores. A young fisherman goes airborne as he hits a header on a beach in Togo. Barefoot boys in Ghana lope gracefully across a field as their slender, elongated shadows chase them.

As the World Cup draws to a close this week, with international teams playing on fields edged by ever-changing digital advertisements for the likes of Adidas, McDonalds and Coca-Cola, images of the highly commercialised, FIFA-sanctioned soccer will not be the only lasting ones.

“The beautiful game exists in its purest form in what I saw — people playing for the joy of playing,” Jessica said in an interview.

The most oddly soulful of Hilltout’s images are of objects: the homemade balls fashioned by children from plastic bags, old socks and rags, tied up with string or strips of tree bark. Some children inflated condoms — commonplace and free on a continent beset by AIDS — wrapped them in cloth to make them heavy, then in plastic bags to seal them and finally bound them in twine. These ingenious, improvised balls bounce like real ones for a few days before the air escapes.

Jessica, 33, accepted these balls, each like a small, hand-wrapped gift, from the children who made them when she gave them the factory-made kind they longed for. She photographed their balls resting on cracked earth or cupped in hands with nail-bitten fingers.

The people she met in some 30 villages stretched across west and southern Africa had no organised support: no free uniforms, no corporate sponsors, no subsidies of any kind. The walls of the gallery exhibit their feet, often bare or in flip flops or mismatched slippers with a toe peeking through a hole.

“So many people have so much and do so little with it,” she said. “The people I met had so little yet managed to do so much with it.”|

A father-daughter project
The exhibition and an accompanying book, titled ‘Amen: Grassroots Football,’ were actually a father-daughter project. She and her father, Mark Hilltout, 64, an Englishman who got out of advertising a decade ago after working for Ogilvy & Mather during most of his career, were first captivated by Africa on marathon drives.

Hilltout took a road trip from England to South Africa when he was 23 and “fell in love with the place,” he said. Jessica studied photography at the art school in Blackpool, England, and took her own African sojourn in her mid-20s.

She subsequently paid for her personal photographic journeys in Africa by saving what she earned working in advertising and taking portraits in Europe, among other jobs. In 2007 she spent six months in Madagascar and produced a series of still lifes called ‘Imperfection.’ Her portraits of handmade objects — sandals, a ladle, a straw broom and a falling-down fence, among many others — suggested the craft the Malagasy people used to create seemingly ordinary things. Still, she was unable to interest any gallery in a solo show of her work.

As Africa’s first World Cup approached, Hilltout, who lives in Cape Town, gave his daughter an idea. A couple of years earlier he had driven the length of the continent to Ethiopia. “You go into the bush, and you find these little villages, and football is the centre of everything,” he said. Why shouldn’t his daughter photograph the game as it’s played by Africans — the homemade balls, the raggedy shoes, the crooked goalposts made of tree branches?

She liked the idea and last year hit the road in her dad’s 1976 Beetle, pitching a tent where there was no other accommodation. She used a miniature digital printer to give the people she photographed images of themselves. And she kept what she called a roadbook — essentially a scrapbook of her travels, with handwritten scribblings of her experiences — that she also showed them.

She told her subjects, “I want to do an exhibit in South Africa, and while all the big stars are in the stadiums, I want you guys to be the stars of my show.”

Her father designed and financed the self-published ‘Amen: Grassroots Football,’ now displayed in the windows of independent booksellers here in South Africa and available on the French-language website fnac.com.

“She really does have a wonderful feeling for texture and space and communicating an idea,” said Ferreira, owner of the gallery in Cape Town. “And with the World Cup being staged here, I thought it would be perfectly placed.”

(Published 09 July 2010, 16:40 IST)

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