The Herero people of Namibia, Africa, preserve a style of dress introduced to them by foreign missionaries, traders, and labourers 130 years ago. Herero women assimilated the wearing of Victorian-era fashion as a symbol of pride and status, integrating the style into their everyday clothing, while making cultural adaptations through distinctive colours, patterns, and design details. For his series Hereros (2012) British photographer Jim Naughten travelled throughout the region—to weddings, funerals, military parades, and gatherings—to capture his subject’s identity as Herero tribe members reified by their garments.

Germany’s colonization of Namibia culminated in the largely undocumented German-Herero War of 1904 – 07, in which the tribe lost more than eighty percent of their population. Herero fighters proudly wore the uniform of the enemies they conquered as a powerful symbol of their survival, and today, men and boys wear a fusion of these uniform styles at ceremonies honouring the ancestors they lost to this turbulent past.

The incongruity of Naughten’s Herero Women Marching (2012), presented in the MOCCA courtyard, echoes the paradoxical meeting of two worlds. The procession of women wearing similar, resplendent dresses and horn-shaped headdresses that symbolize female fertility and the importance of cattle to their society, is placed in high visual relief against the parched environment. Two individual portraits of women in patterned petticoated dress can be viewed in MOCCA’s lobby, along with two portraits of men in unconventional military uniform. Photographing against the expansive landscape and blue sky of the Namib Desert that bore silent witness to this violent history, Naughten imbues his portraits with a sense of timelessness. His images convey in stunning detail the celebratory clothing through which a culture claims their identity with pride and defiance.

Presented in Partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.

Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein