Each image, a portrait of Herero tribe members of Namibia, reveals a material culture that harkens the region’s tumultuous past: residents wear Victorian era dresses and paramilitary costume as a direct result and documentation of its early 20th century German colonization. Namibia’s borders encompass the world’s oldest desert. Bleak lunar landscapes, diamond mines, German ghost towns, rolling sea fogs, nomadic tribes and a hostile coastline littered with shipwrecks and whale skeletons comprise the region’s striking and haunting natural features. Namibia’s geography has witnessed a turbulent and little documented history of human settlement, upheaval and war within a particularly brutal period of European colonization.
In the European scramble to colonise Africa, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany claimed one of the least populated and most hostile environments on the planet. It became Deutsche Sudewest-afrika. Though sparsely populated, it was already home to the San, Nama and Herero people. Rhenish missionaries set about converting and clothing them after European fashion. Over time, this became a Herero tradition, and continuing to dress in this manner was a great source of pride to the wearer. Gradually, regional variations in the silhouette emerged; for example, the addition of 'cow horns' to headdresses reflects the great importance with which they regard their cattle.
War broke out between German colonizers and the local tribes in 1904. The Herero tribe was devastated, having lost almost eighty percent of its population. Garments became an important expression of identity during these fragile times. Upon killing a German soldier, a Herero warrior would remove the uniform and adopt it to his personal dress as a symbol of his prowess in battle. Paradoxically, as with the Victorian dresses, the wearing of German uniforms became a tradition that is continued to this day by Namibian men who honour their warrior ancestors during ceremonies, festivals and funerals.
These portraits are not intended to serve as a conventional documentary of Herero culture. They do not capture the subject in a snapshot of everyday life nor with objects typical of routine or social station. Subjects are removed from their home and intentionally suspended in a confrontational posture. As such, their identity as Herero tribe members is reified in their garments and their gaze, a colour and vibrancy brought into acute focusby the contrasting setting.
By composing these portraits against the Namibian landscape — one of unforgiving intensity but also of silent witness — there is an enlivening that takes place in an otherwise frozen moment. The still space, the direct gaze, the re-appropriated cloth combine to curate a stillness that allows the past to speak.