Jim Naughten, Hereros
In my childhood, always with deep allure, at times to the point of preoccupation I would keep my eyes peeled for them. When it happened, among the fridges of a supermarket on the isolated desert coast of Namibia I would pull on mama and whisper: ‘A Herero! Look, Mom a Herero!’ I loved coming into contact with the Herero. Desert royalty I could sometimes find at the grocery. Or deep inland at a petrol station. Their oversized head dresses shaped as horns raising their status in my mind.
Splitting the Bantu speaking tribe further, the Herero left their nomadic Himba brethren in northern Namibia to settle and prosper as cattle ranchers in the south. Busy nineteenth century German missionaries took exception to the immodesty of the natural Herero way, similar to the style continued today by their Himba cousins. In line with Africa’s rich history of exchange, Herero women adopted Victorian and Edwardian sensibilities, shaping the dress code into a bodice of buttons that close around the neck, the dress itself at times stuffed with up to eight petticoats. Their headpiece, or crown as I call it, paying homage to the horns of their cattle which made them so rich.
In 1904 the Herero rebelled against Germany, a strategic player and British pawn in the Scramble for Africa. Through the systematic poisoning of wells and by driving them deep into the desert to starve, it is estimated that within three years the Herero population was reduced from 80,000 to 15,000. The first genocide of the 20th century which, it is argued, set the precedent in imperial Germany for Nazi death camps. The figures are still argued in The Namib Times today, the German government having recognized the atrocities in 2004. It is not unknown for a bitter argument over German compensation for the genocide to stir in Namibian kitchens.
British Photographer Jim Naughten’s documentary portraiture distills the Herero just as the awe-struck child in me would’ve wanted. The Namib Desert perfect for Naughten’s characteristic use of whitespace, Jim manages to play with our emotions as he captures our interest and lets us ogle up the visual feast which is the formal Herero. Naughten’s decontextualization neutralises their exotic nature which would otherwise distract the viewer with conceits and pre-fed notions. Instead the lid on one of Africa’s most beautiful peoples is popped right open. Below he digs a little deeper into the Herero with us.
You’re working on a book focused on the Herero of Namibia. Will it be purely pictorial or do you delve into their unique history too?
Jim Naughten | As far as the book goes, it will be mainly pictorial, and almost all made up of full length portraits with a couple of landscapes. There will be a short introductory essay written by me, and then an in-depth essay that will talk at length about their history written by Lutz Martin, a Professor of African studies. It’s very important to have the essay to explain the clothes, and it is a strange, paradoxical story. In a nutshell the women wear the dresses introduced to them by missionaries during the Victorian era which they wear every day, and the men wear their military uniforms to honor their ancestors who fought the Germans. During the German Herero war ( 1904 – 1907 ) if a Herero soldier killed a German, he would take and wear the uniform as a badge of honor. This became a tradition. Both these outfits have become incredibly strong symbols of Herero culture.
What will the difference be, do you think, between exhibiting your Herero series to a NY audience versus a South African / Namibian audience?
JN | It’s a good question and not an easy one to answer. One of my rules is to make the images for myself first and foremost so it’s not something I usually consider whilst working, but I am always intrigued when they are hung, or in the public domain. It’s probably a matter of how much New Yorkers know about Hereros and the story behind the clothes. In that sense I think the images would be more impressive or surprising to an unfamiliar audience. It would probably be similar in South Africa, but in Namibia the Hereros are instantly recognisable. I would hope they like them – so far they seem very happy with them.
All your work is shot in a highly decontextualized style. What does this treatment do for your subjects? Is there a difference between what this treatment achieves in the Herero series versus the Re-enactors series?
JN | I chose to shoot against the expanse of the desert, rather than in villages or towns, and to use it as a kind of backdrop, so it’s always shot from a similar height and perspective throughout the series. The setting is important to the story as it’s timeless and expansive, and also serves to bring the subject into sharp focus. ( Namibia is 4 times the size of the UK, and one of the lowest populations in the world – around 2 million ). I have also used some techniques with perspective and lighting to highlight the aesthetic and surreal quality of the story, and of course, the inherent beauty of the subjects. As someone who used to paint, I often consider how I would paint a subject, and try and take the photography in that direction. The Re-enactors were shot against a completely plain background, again, timeless but more ambiguous, perhaps. There are some strange connections between the two projects, but they are coincidental.
How do the Herero explain their hybrid style to themselves?
JN | The dresses and uniforms are extremely important and powerful symbols of Herero culture, and here is the paradox, as the clothing comes from ( or is directly influenced by ) the people who nearly wiped them out altogether ( during the German Herero war, up to 80 % perished ). Their dresses have become more colourful and expressive over time, and the headdresses have grown to represent cow horns ( the Hereros are cattle herders ) and they have become an enormous source of pride to the wearer, and likewise the military uniforms, which connect them to the ancestors and demonstrate a kind of defiance, survival and strength.
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Written by Kyle Tregurtha.
Jim Naughten is an artist living and working in London. His new book, Hereros, will be published in the spring of 2013 by Merrell.
All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.