Hereros: Conflict and costume in Namibia

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Sitting at the intersection of typology, documentary and fine art, Jim Naughten’s winning Portrait of Humanity 2020 series explores the vibrant and politically-charged costumes of Namibia’s Herero tribe

Some 23 years ago, Jim Naughten watched his first sunrise over an eastern expanse of Namibia. Driving cross country on a rusty motorbike, the British photographer traced a loose trail of German ghost towns connected by a violent colonial history, set against the backdrop of the world’s oldest desert: scorching, lunar, timeless.

15 years after his first trip, Naughten returned to create his Portrait of Humanity 2020 winning series. A typological study of clothing, Hereros explores the period when German colonisers clashed with the Herero, a Bantu ethnic group, at the turn of the last century.

After German missionaries arrived in Namibia in the late 1800s, Victorian dresses from Europe were adopted and modified by indigenous Herero women, enriched over time with vivid African colour palettes and cow horn headdresses. Subsequently, during the German-Herero war (1904-1907), according to custom, native warriors claimed the uniforms of German soldiers upon killing them, each one a symbolic seizure of power.

German colonisers killed nearly 85 per cent of the Herero population during the war. Today, Herero military uniforms, which imitate those of the Germans, are worn to honour the Herero lost to what is now widely accepted as the first genocide of the 20th-century.  “It’s a fascinating paradox,” Naughten muses. “Why would the Herero wear the costume of the very people who tried to destroy them?”

Hereros, shot over four months in 2012, pictures men, women and children standing tall and regal, spectacularly clad against the bright, white light of the Namib desert. Naughten worked with a Herero guide to meet his subjects, camping each night and photographing each day, witnessing weddings to funerals and various ceremonies in between.

Sitting at the intersection of documentary and fine art, the images appear almost unreal — and in part, they are. “I often think about how I would paint a subject,” the artist remarks. “Colours are often more intense or pronounced in memory or mind than in reality. There’s a difference between what is in my mind’s eye and what is actually there.” Naughten imposed many of his subjects against the desert landscape in post-production; a landscape that exists as a silent witness to a barbaric past. 

“Herero descendants consider themselves directly connected to their ancestors’ spirits, and demonstrate enormous pride in their culture,” Naughten says. “For me, they represent the human spirit of survival and defiance in the face of overwhelming, unimaginable hardship and loss.”

Hereros is exhibiting as part of the Portrait of Humanity 2020 Global Tour, on show at Capa Center, Budapest, until 11 October and Indian Photo Festival, Hyderabad, between 12 November and 13 December 2020.

Enter Portrait of Humanity 2021 (Deadline 22 October 2020 – 23:59 UK Time)

Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.