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Ovahimba Gaze: A Given Time

Rina Sherman

Prints Philippe Ciaparra

Sala Lippi - Unicredit Banca, Perugia, 2010

From the first glance that the Ovahimba pose on someone, they seem to imagine the essential quality of their interlocutor. It is as if at this key moment, they decide who the other person is. Often, giving a newcomer a nickname follows. Hence, shortly after my arrival in Ovahimba country, Kakaendona gave me the name of Kandav. When I asked her what the name means, she explained that it came from the world of the spirits and means either faire figure shaking in the trees or twigs moving rapidly in the wind. I presumed that she had detected an active side in me; always busy photographing them, to retain precisely the tender and penetrating gaze they so well know how to show to others.

During my seven years of living with the family of the head of Etanga, a settlement located in northwestern Namibia, I was preoccupied by that endearing gaze, which showed a great presence of mind while remaining humble. I soon realized that the cattle farmers of this semi-arid savanna region were desert people. They need to picture who the other is when they do not belong to their extended family. In the past, such travelers were explorers, missionaries, traders, hunters and more recently development agents and tourists. Strangers did not always have only good intentions when arriving in these remote regions. The local inhabitants had little time to identify the disposition of such visitors. They came, uninvited, to discover, save, trade, kill, and later to instruct and finally just to look. Their tradition obliges the Ovahimba to restore the traveler and to refrain from asking him when he will leave. Such is the paradox that appears through this engaging expression in their eyes.

Over the seven years of living with the Ovahimba, two things never ceased to captivate my attention: this way of fixing their gaze on the other and a way of appearing and disappearing without anyone seeing them arrive or leave. The counterpart of that which escapes in the furtive movement returns in the static aspect of an immutable gaze, sometimes revealing a glimmer of interrogation or concealing a smile that suggests possible sympathy for hosts nobody invited, and who courageously and often clumsily begins to capture on film these moments of wordless exchanges. Those who are there to meet the eyes of travelers follow in the footsteps of ancestors who have seen passing over the centuries, smugglers of goods, know-how and gods, and they saw some.

In the selection of images presented here under the title "Ovahimba Gaze: A Given Time", I would like to share these instantaneous crossed glances with those I came into contact every day, with their parents and friends that I occasionally frequented or others I met only once, sometimes for only the time of the photograph. I chose images that above all convey the feeling of shared common humanity that I felt living and photographing members of my host family, their relatives and friends. They are images from life taken from one moment to another without affectation, simply capturing the moment when the other offers his gaze to me and thus allowing me to fix a part of him on film.

During my stay of seven years in Ovahimba, bonds were created, more strongly with some than with others; complicities grew, by affinity or interest, in accordance with human nature, which follows a path of least resistance. The images presented here tend to emphasize the complexity of human relations between contemporaries, as they are part of a smart mix of ambiguity modesty, frugality and abundance in perpetual becoming. I seek voluntarily to release pictures of strong and weak times of these singular moments that precede memory, when the image of restitution of bygone traditions becomes a reflection of contemporary human relationships.

Rina Sherman
Paris, November 2010

  
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