Objects and stories from Namibia

Posted: September 17, 2013 - 14:40 , by ROM
Women and children in the village of Ohungumure

Sometimes collections grow out of chance encounters and long distance personal relationships. A couple of years ago, I was put in touch with Nharo!, a Toronto based fair trade company, by my colleague Trudy Nicks, who is a passionate explorer of the CNE international pavilion. Last year, this casual shopping connection, led to the acquisition of a large collection of Himba garments and accessories for the ROM African holdings.

The Himba, part of the larger Herero linguistic and cultural group, are a semi-nomadic pastoralist group who live in the far northwestern Kunene Region of Namibia, which borders on Angola. Since they live in the most “remote” region of Namibia, they have retained many of their traditional customs, such as their dress, and their spiritual beliefs, where many other related Herero groups have been more heavily affected by German colonial expansion. They are mostly cattle and sheep  herders. Their herds are a clear marker of status and are the main source of food and  of the materials used in their clothing and accessories.

Paul Welhauser greeting a himba woman

Photo copyright: Shane Mahood (Soda Studios)

The accessories and garments were all collected expressly for the ROM by Paul Welhauser, the founder of Nharo!. Paul has a long history of commercial partnership with the San and Himba people of Namibia and volunteered to help us acquire a collection of well documented attires from this area. We agreed that we would only acquire things that people were willing to sell, and most importantly, things that were still current and replaceable, things that were popular and in fashion, and that people felt would represent them well. Bodily aesthetic is in fact a very important marker of Himba identity, and wealth and social status is mostly expressed through the choice of garments and accessories worn daily.

Himba man showing his knife

Photo copyright: Nharo!

With this in mind, Paul bought over a hundred pieces, photographed owners and makers, and recorded a lot of information in notebook and cards…which in some cases went missing or got misplaced. Last week though, Caroline Tjambiru a Kaisa Ngombe, two Himba artists visiting Toronto as part of a Namibia government funded trade mission, joined us for two days to talk to us about the Himba collection and fill in the blanks left by the missing cards.

Caroline and Kaisa in the ROM's Ethnology collection room

Caroline and Kaisa in the ROM's ethnology collection room. Photo: Silvia Forni

They talked about the objects, showed us how to combine and layer each carefully crafted element, and helped us identfy materials, owners, and artists.

Being artists themselves, they provided a wealth of information on materials and techniques, they repaired some necklaces that had to be cut off the neck of their owners in order to be removed, and shared with good humour their vast cultural knowledge.

Caroline reparing a broken necklace

A different spin on the concept of "ethnic repair". Photo: Tracey Forster

Most importantly, they told us about how happy they were that the things that they make and value can be appreciated and valued in Toronto as well.

We really had two great days, and now have a much richer collection because of that!

Thank you Paul, Kaisa and Caroline. And thank you to the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable trust for making this acquisition and exchange possible.