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Out of Africa

Special to the Star

The corridor of Doug Spencer’s ordinary North York apartment building is long and narrow with dark green carpet and a row of identical doors. It’s the very picture of drabness and temptingly anticlimactic to what lies in wait behind the door of suite 505.

Just inside the door it’s dark and shadowy. The back of a display case, covered in a Moroccon carpet, creates a passageway to the rest of the apartment. The case is filled with a colossal array of travel artifacts: shoes, headgear and masks, carvings, baskets, bowls, hats, bags.

Pressing past the case, and through a doorway Spencer fashioned himself, you enter a living room that explodes with light and exuberant colour. Brilliant green, red, yellow and orange Kente cloths from Ghana adorn every inch of wall. Layered over those are dresses from China, India and Vietnam, plus headdresses, masks, puppets shields and colour photos.

Even the ceiling is covered with vibrant textiles — a camel cover and a cow cover from India, plus a crossbow Spencer purchased from Pygmy people in Africa, hats, arrows, spears, shields and even a zebra skin.

Arranged here and there — on side tables, on the fridge, in the bathroom — are native Indian mukluks, small framed appliquéd blankets from the Panamanian Kuna people, a Burmese offering bowl, a leather bag from the Tuareg people of Saharan Africa, a wedding hat from Afghanistan, boots from Mongolia, Bhutan and Uzbekistan, and piles of photo books. In the bedroom, there’s an homage to 1800s explorers, as well as a corner devoted to early filmmaking. Draped over every chair are blankets given to Spencer from people in every Naga village he visited in northern India.

Kilims in brilliant oranges, reds and golds from Morocco, Iran and Afghanistan cover every inch of floor space, sometimes two or three deep. “When I go to a carpet shop, they always ask what size I’m looking for and are surprised when I tell them I don’t care,” Spencer says. “But I’m looking for the design and colour.”

Spencer calls the profusion of textiles as “a multicultural montage, Asia layered over Africa.”

Neighbours call it hoarding.

Not so friends and visitors; the neat and orderly displays elicit a variety of responses from amusement to shock, while “kids, of course, love it,” Spencer says.

No wonder. You could spend days exploring the technicolor world Spencer has created — Alice should have been so lucky to find a rabbit hole such as this.

Thanks to the visual sense that accompanies his experience as a photographer and videographer, Spencer understands composition and colour. While he occasionally moves things around, he knows when a piece has found its rightful resting place and there’s a meticulous rhythm to it all. But no more can be brought though the door, he admits: “I simply don’t have the room.”

Arranged into an 800-square-foot apartment, the collection is the culmination of Spencer’s 35 years of travel to 74 countries; down rivers, through jungles and into dusty markets. Combing the world, ostensibly searching for people to document, he cannot resist the physical reminders of their cultures and has amassed a cache of artifacts made by the hands of those he films.

He has favourites: an Iranian carpet, the Kente cloths “so bright and beautiful they seduce,” an Indonesian xylophone, Miao hairpins, necklaces from China, a Benin paddle, an Indian medicine cabinet, ancestral poles from East Timor and an Indonesian room partition.

Spencer’s own story is woven into it all.

In the late 1970s, after he left teaching public school, Spencer compiled photographs and travel anecdotes, then self-published a book, Under One Sun. The run of 1,000 was purchased mainly by Ontario elementary schools for the positive values of cultural tolerance.

Film was what he really wanted to do, but the technology was too expensive until 1989, when Hitachi came out with a broadcast quality camera for $14,000. Spencer “sunk” $25,000 into equipment and put an ad in the Star inviting intrepid explorers to join him in Venezuela to visit the few remaining Yanomami Indians.

Though a number of people responded to the ad, Spencer picked two men named Harry and Larry. Harry because he’d lived previously in Venezuela and spoke fluent Spanish; and Larry because he’d been a lake boat captain and knew how to use a gun. “I figured I had the language, the safety issue, and the filming covered,” Spencer says.

What started out as a documentary about the pair travelling down the Orinoco River towards the Amazon, quickly turned into Two Stooges in Amazonia when one disaster after another struck: the boat breaking down, an inefficient native crew, and then Spencer catching a bad virus.

Harry and Larry continued on their own to the Andes, but Spencer returned to Toronto with enough footage to “make into a comedy,” Spencer says, “but nothing marketable.”

Later film expeditions proved more successful when Spencer got the go-ahead for a series called Off The Map — tales of ordinary women taking trips to extraordinary places. Spencer shot several on his own before joining forces in the mid-’90s with producer Felice Gorica. Together they shot the remainder of 39 episodes, which was sold to WTN (now W) in Canada, the Travel Channel and W Entertainment in the U.S., and broadcasters in nine other countries before winning a Gemini nomination in 2000.

Through it all, Spencer maintained a full-time job with Ontario’s ministry of tourism, using his three weeks vacation plus stat holidays to continue filming. After the series was completed, he kept on shooting. Though he had enough tape for several series — exquisitely beautiful clips that equal of docs like Weeping Camel — the networks weren’t interested. After a while, Spencer gave up making pitches and posted the films to his website ( for all to enjoy.

What draws Spencer into travelling the world, especially its lesser known corners, is a desire to capture on film the intrinsic beauty of people and the unique way they view the world.

The Dogon people in southwest Mali, for example, “couldn’t be dreamed up if you tried,” he says. “They believe their origin is from a remote star and because the desert fox can predict the future, each village has a fox man, who interprets the tracks foxes leave behind.”

Their villages, too, are the stuff of fairy tales. “If you look down from a cliff, you can see these Disney-like villages with clay houses like sand castles,” he says.

He was recently in the Philippines looking for remnants of former headhunter tribes. The trip yielded nothing in the way of head hunters, but he met and filmed others.

“I spent time with a shaman who performed a ritual for the benefit of my health, although it didn’t make me feel much better,” Spencer recalls. “I went to a couple of weddings in the mountains. I met a family of Christians who adopted me for a few days, then I went to Korea where I spent time with Buddhists.”

Travelling not only broadens the mind, opening you to new experiences, Spencer maintains, it also teaches you things about yourself, because at every step of a voyage of discovery, one responds in different ways.

“You awaken to aspects of yourself you never realized you had, as you seek to understand others.”

Then there’s the part about carrying back the artistic expressions of other peoples’ everyday lives — Spencer’s unique way of stretching out the journey.

Alex Newman writes a weekly column for on design and decor. You can contact her through her website

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