REVIEWED: Jim Naughten: Conflict and Costume

By Martin Macdonald
"These portraits are not intended as a conventional record of Herero culture. They do not capture the subject in a snapshot of everyday life, nor with objects typical of routine or social standing..." begins the artist statement curiously placed on a wall towards the back of the gallery. The Herero tribespeople of Namibia take centre-stage in Margaret Street Gallery’s Conflict and Costume, a photographic exhibition of London-based artist Jim Naughten (b. 1969). Held from 5 March - 13 April, the show features vibrant portraits of the Herero amid scorching desert landscapes of the southern African nation. The archival chromatic prints (2012) from Naughten’s Hereros series draw on Namibia’s troublesome colonial past, which continues to influence Herero culture today.

Jim Naughten, Herero Women Marching, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Margaret Street Gallery.

In 1884, Germany - itself officially unified in 1871 – took control of the land that was to become known as Deutsch-Südwestafrika. Influenced by German traders and missionaries alike, local tribespeople adopted the European dress sense of the times. Herero women started wearing puffy floor-length gowns and cattle-horn-shaped headdress. Even though these adopted foreign styles, in time, came to form part of Herero women’s own character, the tribeswomen stylistically subverted the fashion of their colonisers by wearing bright, colourful patchwork and playing with the size of headdress. It has been said that as a symbol of fertility - or lack thereof coming with old age - elderly Herero wear smaller headdress ‘horns’ than their Herero counterparts of childbearing age.

Herero men’s ceremonial dress also references German colonisers. Germany waged war against the Herero and Nama people from 1904 -1907, leading to the Herero and Namaqua Genocide whereby nearly 80% of the tribes’ members perished. Herero men then adopted and adapted the uniforms of their German oppressors for their own Otruppe (troops) movements by adding red cardboard cutouts - wrist and ankle bands, sashes and caps. In this manner, by making German uniforms their own - by adding their own personal touches - the Herero empowered themselves and as a result, neutralised the enemy’s power.

Upon entering Margaret Street Gallery, one immediately notices that some photographs are framed whilst others are attached to the white gallery walls with large paper clips. On the left wall towards the front of the gallery, Herero Women Marching shows a group of women in red headdress wearing voluminous red gowns and intricate black jackets slowly ‘marching’ alongside two other women from another group within the Otruppe. Their green gowns contrast heavily with the main group’s blanket of red; both however share the long slightly upturned headdress ‘horns’. 

Jim Naughten, Herero Cavalry Marching, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Margaret Street Gallery.

Next to this piece, Herero Cavalry Marching features five men in an assortment of uniforms riding horseback.  Although dignified and regimental, there is something slightly farcical and comical about the scene as the pomposity of the occasion is undermined by the overwhelmingly relaxed riding style of a few men as well as the slightly malnourished appearance of at least one horse.  

Jim Naughten, Herero Woman in Yellow Dress, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Margaret Street Gallery.
Jim Naughten, Herero Woman in Patchwork Dress, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Margaret Street Gallery.

On the opposite wall, a young woman in large colourful headdress, Herero Woman in Yellow Dress, stands on an angle as she stares at an unknown fixed point. Quite the opposite, with her gaze firmly fixed on the camera as though looking directly at the audience, Herero Woman in Patchwork Dress features a long limbed elderly woman in a smaller yellow headdress and vibrant patchwork dress. In their own unique ways, both women appear somewhat confrontational. 

Jim Naughten, Herero Man in Yellow Suit, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Margaret Street Gallery.
Jim Naughten, Herero Woman in Yellow Scarf, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Margaret Street Gallery.

Further along, in formal attire, Herero Man in Yellow Suit presents a man wearing a trilby hat and carrying a walking cane yet his shoes are dirty as he cheekily smiles for the camera. In another picture, an older, rather voluptuous woman in a pink floral dress, Herero Woman with Yellow Scarf, turns towards the camera but with a side glance, thus avoiding the audience’s gaze. Like Yinka Shonibare who also uses wax resist print fabric to expose the legacy of European colonialism in Africa, Naughten's Herero Woman in Yellow Scarf wears these fabrics brought over to Africa by Europeans and which have since become part of the cultural identity of many Africans.

Jim Naughten, Herero Woman in Blue Dress, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Margaret Street Gallery.

In what is perhaps my favourite piece of the exhibition, Herero Woman in Blue Dress presents a middle-aged woman with open arms and with the palms of her hands in full view. She is striking a ‘cow dance’ pose, whereby the Herero - traditionally cattle herders themselves - mimic irate bulls. In the scorching desert, her pointy blue ‘horns’ and blue dress help deliver a touch of surrealism and even though the woman is wearing dusty black shoes, there is something almost religious - a floating-like quality even though it is clear the woman’s feet are firmly on the ground. This perhaps references the European missionaries who attempted to convert the Herero to Christianity – it is as though Herero Woman in Blue Dress has morphed into a magnificent black Virgin Mary. Then again, her pose and sorrowful expression can also be interpreted as that of someone who has been defeated but who remains quietly dignified.

Jim Naughten, Herero Cavalry Cadets, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Margaret Street Gallery.

Towards the back of the gallery, hang the photographs of young soldiers. Herero Cavalry Cadets is particularly amusing as two young teenage boys in reddish-wine coloured helmet-like hats and adorned, funny looking trousers stand; one is half smiling, as the other looks terribly serious. Herero Cadet in Cardboard Hat shows a stern looking older teenager in uniform with added red cardboard adornments that make him look more like a toy soldier or someone who is out to have fun rather than a professional in training.

Jim Naughten, Herero Cadet in Cardboard Hat, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Margaret Street Gallery.

Naughten’s fascinating exhibition captures the personality of its subjects proudly posing for the camera in the sunshine-filled Namib Desert; in a nation which has experienced its fair share of pre and post-independence conflict. Despite the sterility of the works’ titles which are reminiscent of out-dated modes of categorisation of non-white ‘exotic’ people by white Europeans, the expressive proud faces and flamboyant costumes of Naughten’s Hereros save the project from falling into the uncomfortable post-colonial racist trap. There is however, a slight disconnect between Naughten’s intent as signaled by the artist statement on the gallery wall and a European audience’s reception. His portrayal of the Herero in hybrid costume is what the viewer with no prior knowledge of Herero culture will take away with them. One should nevertheless credit Naughten’s photographic skills and respect for the Herero – an ethnicity representing no more than 8% of Namibia’s current population – as it is this which prevents another layer of conflict being added to the ‘young’ nation’s tumultuous history.