Shedding light on the lives of the women of East Africa’s Kara tribe, the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art this month presents “Kara Women Speak,” an exhibition of stories and images born along the banks of the Omo River in Southwestern Ethiopia and northern Kenya.

The exhibit, which runs through Dec. 6, distills a decade of photographer Jane Baldwin’s travels among the indigenous communities in and around the Kara tribal area – including the Nyangatom, Hamar, Turkana and Dassanach villagers.

According to the museum, over the course of her travels in the region, Baldwin earned a trust from the tribal women, “that evolved slowly and developed into a lifetime multi-media project.”

Kara women, says Baldwin, are the keepers of ancient oral traditions; through storytelling, the legacy of a “harmonious and interdependent way of life is preserved through myth, proverb and song.”

The exhibition features a selection of lifesize portraits and accompanying stories that, according to museum officials, “span cultural traditions of first and second wife, death and mourning, arranged marriage, childbirth, education, a woman’s role as a Kara government representative, sustaining a seed bank and an ecologically rich river culture.”

The exhibit’s curator, Anne Veh, describes Baldwin’s work as “a cross-cultural bridge of human understanding.”

“Working behind a medium format Hasselblad, Baldwin’s engagement with her subject is unbroken,” comments Veh.

“Over time,” says Veh, “Baldwin has created a documentation of indigenous culture that reflects the complex assimilation of the ancient and modern, woven into concerns for their future, all from a women’s perspective.”

Sonoma Valley Museum of Art executive director Kate Eilertsen says such exhibitions show how “art can be so much more than a pretty picture.”

Eilertsen, who steps down from the museum with the opening of this exhibit (though she’s coming back as curator for an exhibition later this winter), says Baldwin’s photographs tell the story of a community on the verge of being destroyed by development in Ethiopia.

It’s an exhibition that carries “important messages about global issues that must not be ignored,” says Eilertsen.

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