"stagings made in Namibia – post-colonial photography"
Berlin 2009, b_books
BLACK AND WHITE IN COLOUR*
The photographs in the series Stagings show hundreds of Namibians – individuals, couples, school classes, wedding parties, crowds. But only a single image (Windhoek 24a) shows black and white people together, side by side, in a group: four young people smile into Malaika Tjirimuje’s camara. It is a picture of friends. Twenty years after the century of state racism came to an end with the official abolition of apartheid in Namibia these snapshots of every day life still appear to depict separate worlds. Very rarely does an inhabitant of one world stray into the field of vision or photograph of another – one example is the black man behind the white couple photographed by Memory Biwa (Windhoek 27). In only half a dozen of the photographs brought together here can both white and black people be seen.
These few images have a further similarity, however, that distinguishes them from the others in the series. While the overwhelming majority of the photographers give their subjects a lot of space and show them completely, Frida !Ama-||Ai Tsame’s picture (Ghobabis 27) of a man squatting on the ground crops one of the other figures in such a way that only the hands and part of the head of a white person can be seen. It looks as if the man (or is it a woman? – even this is not distinctly recognisable) is barging into a picture in which he doesn’t belong. So too does the white man with a beer glass in Romanda Job’s photograph of two black women in a pub (Windhoek 26a) seem to push his way into the image from the left, as if the photographer was unable to keep him out. His upper body, bisected in any case, is almost obliterated by the red light of a faulty exposure. The technical and compositional peculiarities of these photographs awakens the suspicion that the whites in the blacks’ photographs and the blacks in the whites’ photographs are generally unwanted accessories, foreign bodies, intruders.
More frequently occurring than photographs with both black and white people are those in which depictions of either black or white people can be seen alongside the portrayed person. A very white Jesus Christ on the cross can be seen to the left of the black woman photographed by Boetietjie Kavandje (Windhoek 7a). The painting on the right shows a white women looking so directly at the viewer than her gaze seems almost as important as the actual main subject in the centre of the photograph.
The picture of a blonde woman behind the girl Myra Pieters photographed in front of a jewellery shop (Windhoek 16a) is not quite so large, but somehow in a row with the subject. And in Myra Pieters’ picture of the street musician Abraham Kambamo in Windoek’s Poststreet Mall, photographs of white people appear in an Afrikaans-language ad poster for a record company. The two men photographed by Ché Ulenga (Windhoek 13) hold up the picture of a half-naked woman in such a way that her eyes are in the centre of the image, while the protagonists themselves recede to its edges. Both photographer and subjects are endeavouring to show this particular image of another person. Real black or white people appear in the photographs by their respective “other” only by chance, but their depictions are a welcome accessory and an important attribute.
In two of the photos from Stagings people in Windhoek pose in front of statues of historical personalities that remember the colonial era and apartheid or the struggle against it. Behind the black woman photographed by Denise Khoito (Windhoek 5) stands the founder of colonial Windhoek, Curt von François, captain in the Schutztruppe (protection troops). This image tells not least of the relaxed attitude Namibia has to the memorials to its troubled past. The statues of the oppressors still stand, and blacks pose in front of them to be photographed. The white couple in Almuth Schwarting’s picture (Windhoek 29), on the other hand, are standing in front of the statue of the Herero chief Hosea Kutako, whose struggle against colonial rule and the apartheid regime is discussed in Israel Kaunatjike’s article.
What would Hosea Kutako have said about sorting photographs that Namibians have made of their fellow citizens into “white” and “black”? He would have described it as an act of apartheid. For the fact that we, the viewers of these images in the year 2008, assign the people depicted so swiftly and conclusively to the categories “white” and “black” is an effect of the racist thinking of past centuries. Who is “white” and who is “black” in Cesilie Benjamin’s photograph (Windhoek 23)? Why do we see the white hands in Ndati Tshilunga and Toscha Wimsa’s photographs (Windhoek 15 und Kavango 2) as black? Who decides this for the woman in Myra Pieters’ photograph taken in a souvenirs shop (Windhoek 4a), and what is it that makes the Himba figure standing next to her the depiction of a black person? Pombili Paulus’s photo of three human shadows (Arandis 11) cannot be pressed into any of these categories. Seen and photographed like this all people are equal.
*(BLACK AND WHITE IN COLOUR is the English title of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Oscar-winning feature film Noirs et blancs en couleur, a scathing denouncement of colonialism and rascism).