The Amazing Costume Culture of Africa’s Herero Tribe
In 2011 Jim Naughten spent four months photographing the Herero tribe of Namibia. The London-based photographer drove thousands of miles through the desert, meeting and negotiating with people, camping and continuously cleaning the dust out of his camera equipment. His resulting book,Conflict and Costume, is an in-depth look at the bold and gorgeous costumes that have come to represent the cultural identity of the Herero people.
The style of dress was introduced during the German/Herero conflict in the early 20th century, when nearly 80 percent of the Herero population was wiped out. Though the attire was originally forced upon the Herero people, it has since become a tradition and point of pride. “If a warrior killed a German soldier he would take and wear their uniform as a badge of honor, and to ‘take’ or appropriate their power,” Naughten explained in an email. “A version of these uniforms is worn by Herero men today at festivals and ceremonies, to honour the fallen ancestors and to keep the memories alive.”
The Herero women adopted the German missionaries’ Victorian-style floor length gowns, but they eventually incorporated the vivid colors and cow-horn-shaped headdress (to represent the Herero’s respect for cattle) you see today. After a woman is married, she is expected to make most of her dresses, often from the offcuts of other garments. These voluminous, patchwork outfits are considered every-day attire, while dresses made from a single material are reserved for special occasions. In the book’s introduction, Lutz Martin writes: “Rounded to resemble healthy cows, the dresses contain up to 10 metres of cloth, despite summer temperatures reaching 50 degrees celsius.”
To get his portraits, Naughten immersed himself in Herero culture. He and his guide traveled from village to village, asking permission of the elders to photograph. In turn, he would be invited to weddings, funerals and ceremonies where would he set up his equipment and snap shots of passersby against the Namibian landscape. Naughten said he lost track of how many people he photographed (it was a lot), but he does recall that most everyone was excited to show off their garb. “The man in the yellow suit has to be a favorite,” Naughten wrote. “For walking in front of the camera/lighting set up without saying a word, posing so perfectly for one shot, and then walking off smiling.”
You can purchase a copy of Conflict and Costumehere and check out Naughten’s work at the Klompching Gallery in Brooklyn.