Michele Sibiloni, Nsenene

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Edition Patrick Frey (here). Hardcover (31 x 23 cm), 144 pages, with 66 color photographs. Includes texts by Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (Bobi Wine), Katende Kamadi, and Francis Sengendo. Design by Nicolas Polli. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Italian photographer Michele Sibiloni has spent much of the past decade in East Africa, and during his time in the region, he primarily worked as a photojournalist covering key events, from the independence of South Sudan and the uprisings during the Arab Spring to the Ebola crisis. But Sibiloni is also interested in producing stories that don’t make the major headlines. He is particularly interested in documenting life after dark, and his first photobook Fuck It (from 2016, reviewed here) captured the energetic night life of Kampala.

One night while travelling by bus, he saw a town entirely lit up by the traps used for catching grasshoppers. The grasshoppers, or nsenene, are a specialty dish in Uganda, and an essential source of income for many locals. Sibiloni was captivated by this tradition and its visually striking atmosphere, and spent about five years travelling around the country and documenting it. The series has been recently published in a photobook, capturing the joys and perils of harvesting the insects.

Sibiloni’s photographs immerse us into a space between reality and a dream via a cinematic visual flow, while the texts at the end of the book provide essential context and history. Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (known as Bobi Wine), an Ugandan musician turned politician, shares his own memories of catching nsenene as a child, and discusses the nuances of the process and the business.

Nsenene migrate en masse twice a year, usually at the end of a rainy season. Today, due to climate change, and especially due to deforestation, it is harder to predict the timing of the migration. “The first and the best grasshoppers are the ones in November. They’re very fat and juicy,” writes Bobi Wine. There are, of course, different ways to catch them. One can simply go to a plantation, shake a banana tree, and pick them up, and a lot of children do that. But a more serious effort requires investment and planning. One has to purchase special fluorescent light bulbs, and a lot of gear and protective clothing as the unfiltered light can damage the skin and eyes. It is potentially possible to make a lot of money; Bobi Wine mentions a man who made 21 million Ugandan shillings (approximately $5,000) in one go. But it is an unregulated business, and there is a lot of crime and corruption. 

The cover of the book looks like an abstract painting in green and black, not immediately giving away its content, and the greenish end papers feature the silhouettes of grasshoppers, providing us our first small clue. Shot entirely at night, with shimmering green light, the photographs create an atmosphere of a magical and dreamy journey. All of the photographs are presented full bleed, and the blank pages are black, reinforcing the atmosphere of suspense, hunt, and nighttime excitement. 

Nsenene harvesting is almost like a festival season – the sky turns green and people are happy. Sibiloni’s photographs capture this atmosphere and the energy of the tradition. Intense bright green color, deep shadows, abstractions, and tight close-ups fill out his visual parade. One of the most striking images shows a group of people inside an area surrounded by metal plates collecting grasshoppers, with thousands of them are flying around, all captured under a magic green light. A few pages later, there is a shot of a man’s back in a green and white jacket dotted with grasshoppers. 

As the pages turn, Sibiloni shows the results of the night hunt. A full bleed spread captures smiling men in the car in the early morning as they hold huge sacks with grasshoppers. Then, a close up of a person’s hands, lightly squeezing a bunch of grasshoppers, and another shot shows a plastic bottle full of green insects. Sibiloni captures a person sleeping right in the field, and another one walking on the street covered in a blanket. It is clearly a long and exhausting night for many.

As a photobook, Nsenene is a clever and thoughtfully produced object. Sibiloni creates an exciting visual narrative out of a small, self-contained subject and makes it stand out with a distinct language of color. The essays also discuss the related issues of climate change and the urgent need for sustainable harvesting and farming. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, eating insects can help address global food insecurity, while insect farming could also benefit the environment. As Sibiloni takes us on a striking visual journey, sharing an overlooked facet of Ugandan culture, he also powerfully advocates for its preservation. 

Collector’s POV: Michele Sibiloni does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked above).

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