I was taken by Jim Naughten's portraits of Hereros in the latest edition of the BJP, partly because I went to South West Africa (as it then was) to learn German when I was 11 years old and remember seeing the big dresses worn by Herero women.
They are also just so striking. I don't know why, but there seems to be something odd about the portraits, the way in which the dress overwhelms the person who is being photographed. I can't for the life of me remember what the people in the portraits look like, I wouldn't be able to pick them out in an identity parade even 5 minutes after looking at the pictures. I don't think I could even remember what the people are wearing. So the pictures aren't memorable, the people aren't memorable, the clothes aren't memorable, the poses are jagged and awkward and the pictures are just that little bit off - everything about them is off.
I do remember the shoes the boy in the bottom is wearing, and the cardboard cummerbund thing though - the imperfections shine through.
But despite the lack of memorability, the pictures are striking, and they look great on the printed page. This is what Naughten has to say about the clothes.
In the European scramble to colonise Africa, Kaiser Wilhelm’s
Germany claimed one of the least populated and most hostile
environments on the planet. It became Deutsche Sudewest-
afrika. Though sparsely populated, it was already home to the
San, Nama and Herero people. Rhenish missionaries set about
converting and clothing them after European fashion. Over
time, this became a Herero tradition, and continuing to dress
in this manner was a great source of pride to the wearer.
Gradually, regional variations in the silhouette emerged; for
example, the addition of 'cow horns' to headdresses reflects
the great importance with which they regard their cattle.
War broke out between German colonizers and the local tribes
in 1904. The Herero tribe was devastated, having lost almost
eighty percent of its population. Garments became an important
expression of identity during these fragile times. Upon killing
a German soldier, a Herero warrior would remove the uniform
and adopt it to his personal dress as a symbol of his prowess in
battle. Paradoxically, as with the Victorian dresses, the wearing
of German uniforms became a tradition that is continued to
this day by Namibian men who honour their warrior ancestors
during ceremonies, festivals and funerals.