THE PERSISTENCE OF VICTORIAN DESIGN IN NAMIBIAN WOMEN’S FASHION
March 23-25, 2016
In 1884, the year Otto von Bismarck convened the Berlin Conference, kicking off the infamous ‘Scramble for Africa,’ present-day Namibia was annexed under German colonial rule as part of what was to become South West Africa. Within a decade, German imperial troops were installed to enforce state rule, provoking formidable resistance by the dominant Herero and Namaqua people, as well as the Himba. The German army responded with a campaign to remove the groups from their ancestral lands, marking the start of the German-Herero War (1904–1907). By the war’s end, per Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha’s vernichtungsbefehl (annihilation order) as much as eighty percent of the Herero population and fifty percent of the Nama population had been killed by the Germans. It was the first genocide of the twentieth century.
The German-Herero War centered on the enormous profitability of both human bodies and cattle skins. What played out on the “native” body through acts of labor exploitation and racial cleansing also deeply impacted the sartorial, social-cultural, and traditional religious values of the Herero and Himba in particular—closely related clan cousins. The cow, the human body, and God were considered to be one and the same. “Herero-ness” and other clan identities, the sustaining of cattle wealth, and custom were expressed in large measure by a literal embodiment of the cow. Cow ownership, as well as a particular wearing of skins, and a feminine ideal of “walking like a cow,” were set off by sartorial forms that celebrated the cow’s corporality and bored majesty, and its associated dowry wealth.
In Namibia, where much of the material legacy of the genocide exists as cursory markers awaiting UNESCO- and State-planned monuments, fashions of the Herero and the Himba are poignant, tangible testaments. Both groups—summoning the body of the cow—whether with contemporary Western form, imported cloth and notions, skins, or “nakedness,” express radically different relationships to Victorian colonial legacies, often marking a decided resistance to colonialism and the violence enacted on women’s bodies through genocide and racial cleansing.
Engaging the work of the late celebrated South African photographer Thabiso Sekgala and the Herero-inspired collection “Flower in the Desert” (Spring 2012) of Ghanaian-American couture designer Mimi Plange, Conflict and Skin examines the politics and colonial legacies of Namibian fashion — particularly as iterations of “national costume” and notions of “indigeneity,” the practice of indigenous culture despite colonial impositions.
The exhibition explores themes in contemporary African photography and dressmaking, and proposes them as a lens through which to view the legacy of Herero women’s resistance and trauma in the face of colonial domination.
MISSIONARIES, GENOCIDE, AND THE ORIGINS OF A DRESS
The German-Herero War was largely a war of skins: a campaign of racial cleansing in the guise of a bid for captive human labor, cattle wealth, and Herero pastoralist expertise. In the nineteenth century, the Herero, who were renowned for their handling and trade of cattle, had begun to develop an agricultural lifestyle, slowly migrating from territories in, and closest to, what is now Angola, as well as points further south, where they settled and prospered as ranchers. Their close kin, the Himba, preferred to maintain a nomadic lifestyle.
Colonial documents detail a history of exchange over centuries between the Herero and European settlers, but when Germany formalized its military presence in1884, Herero resistance intensified. The German military revealed intentions to remove the Herero from the land and profit from their labor. Coinciding with the rise of German nationalism and social Darwinism which became the foundation of Nazism, the oppression and atrocities in Namibia were also supported by the increasingly commercialized European pseudoscience of race.
While the foundational relationship of the Namibian genocide to Nazism is frequently dismissed, documentation lives in the 1918 tome called The Blue Book—a name shared by other publications of the British Government—a post-facto study using survivor interviews and seized German documents detailing events and killings to create a finely detailed report of the plan to annihilate the Herero, including the mass removal of children, who were sent by train to work camps in Togo and Cameroon, in West and Central Africa, the establishment of concentration and work camps in Namibia, mass lynchings; poisoning of wells, and the forced migration of people deep into the Kalahari desert to face starvation.
The use of skins as a basis for Herero clothing (similar to Himba attire) persisted until the early 20th century. Despite a century of contact with German, Finnish, and English missionaries, religious conversion (as well integration of European customs of any kind) was slow to take hold among the Herero. Namibia is often characterized as a land of remarkable social conservatism and resistance to change, even in relation to neighbors with whom it shares ethnic, environmental and social similarities. Though some prominent Herero families adopted Edwardian and Victorian- inspired cloth dress in the 19th century, few followed their example, proving the cow to be a powerful opponent to German colonialism.
Herero women move easily between traditional dress and ready-made clothing and jeans, but most women consider themselves truly dressed when they wear traditional dress. Western styles are beloved as they are worldwide. Western garments also have their own particular relationship to the genocide: cloth dressing only began to be widely adopted in the decade following the war, and, for men especially, Western clothing was often taken from the bodies of colonial foe and donned as power objects.
Why does the dress have such a powerful appeal, and for so many generations? Horrendous events shaped Herero dress forms in a way that few non-Namibians understand. It is easy to mistake the persistence of this manner of styling as a blind spot of consciousness, or facile proof of the “internalized self-hatred” of the former colonial subject.
The women of the OGC live and work with the tangible legacy of the genocide. There have been survivors among them, and the current leadership includes grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors, as well as revolutionary fighters who fought for democratic statehood and an end to Apartheid. Herero dress is important to their personal identities, and individual, clan, and national expressions of remembrance and protest.
A HIMBA WOMAN WEARS EKORI
Himba women traditionally possessed only what was taken from the cow and other animals, and the earth and waters around them. Conch shells, as valuable as a goat, were obtained from the far away sea. The hair of one’s grandmother or mother is still fused with plant fibers to lengthen a Himba girl’s hair, securing her bond with maternal ancestors. The hair is rubbed with ash and shaped into tresses, then covered with otjize, a paste made of ground ochre, representing blood, and resin of the Omuzumba shrub, to augment scent. Taken from ancestral lands far in the interior, it is obtained over months of gathering. Otjize is mixed with ash and butter fat and applied each day. Cherished for aesthetic reasons, it is also a protection against insects, heat, and cold desert nights, used to promote spiritual and physical health, proclaim clan identities, and to signal passages through life stages.
Ekori is a married woman’s headpiece fashioned from cowhide, however, the woman’s “afro-puff ” ends are Remy, a popular brand of hair extensions manufactured in China, as is the plastic cowrie shell dangling at her forehead.
Most of the current female leadership of the OGC are professionals: university lecturers, nurses, office workers, and a young guard of graduate students. They live and work in cities and small towns and their lives have become caught up in cosmopolitan trappings and differing measures of the world of their villages of origin. However, they frequently return to rural farmland where they keep cattle and livestock inherited at birth, exchanged as bride wealth, or purchased with professional salaries. This capital and tradition-keeping are held with enormous pride. Expressions of these connections are emblemized in the wearing of horn-shaped headdresses. The slow altering of Herero women’s headpieces became most evident in the 1970s, as the more typical style of headdress—piled high and pulled to the hairline—began to mimic the horns of the cow: hard, elongated and pulled low on the forehead. The headdress is slowly returning to its soft, not overly-structured and embellished fashioning.
THABISO SEKGALA (1981–2014) was born in Johannesburg and raised in a settlement near Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria.
A gentle, deep-searching man with an affecting smile and a powerful way of feeling into things, Sekgala seemed to always be looking into a camera. He was arguably the most promising among a new generation of South African photographers, a group which included his close friend Sabelo Mlangeni, Pieter Hugo, and Michael Subotzky. It was a deep shock to his loved ones and the artistic community when he took his own life in 2014.
A graduate of the Johannesburg Market Photo Workshop, Sekgala was awarded the institute’s Tierney Fellowship in 2010. In 2013, he took part in residencies at Kunsterhaus Bethanien, Berlin, and HIWAR/Durant Al Funan, Amman.
His work has been shown in solo exhibitions at Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg (2014); Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg (2011); Recyclart & The Viewer, Brussels (2011). Group exhibitions include Okwui Enwezor’s elegiac Rise and Fall of Apartheid at ICP (2012) and Museum Africa, Johannesburg (2014); Les Rencontres d’Arles (2013); La Maison Rouge, Paris (2013); Musée du quai Branly, Paris (2013); and ifa-Galerie, Berlin (2013). Sekgala’s first monograph, Paradise, was published the year of his death.
Currently, his work is showing (through May 14, 2016) in the exhibition “Close to Home” at the Walther Collection Project Space in Chelsea.