Reframing women’s history in Namibian early photography

There are very few female photographers in South Africa’s early and middle 1900s. Even fewer women photographers, such as Constance Stuart Larrabee or Anne Fisher, have had their work collected and treated with seriousness.

Women photographers have been largely ignored in Namibia, and a new scholarship is emerging that celebrates their history.

My new book, Photographic History and Colonial Southern Africa: Shades of Empire, explores the ways in which we can retrieve the histories that are embedded in these photos.

Anneliese Scherz: Photos

Anneliese Scherz’s work is the subject of one of my chapters. Her Namibian photography began in the 1930s and continued into the 1970s. Scherz photographed white farmers of German descent, poor Afrikaners, and black farmworkers in central Namibia in 1938.

The South African colonial regime in Namibia had been firmly established at the time, and racial segregation was the dominant political ideology. On the eve of World War II, the region was thrown into a period of political turmoil. Ethnic nationalism, partisanship, and other factors threatened to divide the settler community. The situation was made worse by the explicit support for fascism and colonial revisionism among German-speaking settlers.

Scherz’s photography must be understood in this context and as an attempt at imagining what was at the core of white consciousness at that time. Her photographs of German farm workers and itinerant Afrikaners, I believe, documented the harshness of white rural life to a degree that elicited an empathetic reaction from the viewer. Her depictions of black farm workers, on the other hand, hid their precarity and poverty.

Scherz believes that farm workers are not poor due to colonial economic exploitation. She thought that deprivation, scarcity, and poverty were all part of “native life.”

Her images encourage us to work with white women photographers in order to refine our understanding of the way they viewed disenfranchised Indigenous people.

In cases where the agency of black women was hidden by photography, this might need to be recovered by opening up confined spaces and by asking women about their multiple photographic practices rather than just focusing on photographers as authors.

Women photo collectors in Usakos

In my reading, I expand the frame by juxtaposing Scherz’s photographs with the practice of black female Namibian photographers at the time. I examine photos taken from 1910 to the late 1950s in Usakos, a central Namibian city, when the residents were forced to move to townships, and the town was destroyed.

Basler Afrika Bibliographien Basler Afrika Bibliographien

Four women from Usakos have collected the photos, conserved them, and curated them. The work offers a glimpse into the history of women and photography.

Images tell the story of African urban communities’ encounters with traveling black photographers. Photographers from Cape Town and Johannesburg came to central Namibia to offer their service to those who did not have access to studios.

Portraits of women and men in elegant clothing are displayed, as well as snapshots of domestic activities that take place in the area. Weddings, funerals, baptisms, musicians playing instruments, and football and netball teams are all lined up.

An Ousakas portrait. Wilhelmine Katjimune Collection

Photographs from the past can help us understand how women negotiated colonialism and apartheid, as well as forced removals. How the Usakos collect as a way to remember, deal, and imagine the future.

Question of Representation

The colonial record has a long tradition of showing women’s bodies and producing images of sexualized or racialized women. The record raises issues about the ethics and politics of representation within today’s knowledge-production.

The desire to recognize women’s agency in photography has been a response to critical examinations of colonial photographs and the knowledge regimes they engendered. In the last decade, scholars from Africa have produced more historical photography studies. The dominant narratives are being challenged in a wide range of public forums.

In both academic and public contexts, one of the main concerns has been the tension between African women’s increased visibility in the photographic record and their simultaneous silence in historical writing.

This tension may explain why many women academics and artists continue to search for the archives in order to dismantle an aesthetic order that infamously displayed the black female body and fixed colonized Africans into gendered and racial categories.

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