The Balancing Act Between Modernity and Heritage
“I wanted to contest the view of the Himba as being unchanging and document the shift towards modernity in young Himba men; to show that they are evolving with modernity and finding the balance between tradition and the modern world.”
Namibian born Kyle Weeks is not only winning prestigious international photography awards and in demand internationally for his unique style but is also about to host a solo exhibition at the National Art Gallery of Namibia, an exhibition of fine art photography with a focus on portraiture.
99FM’s MYD Art caught up with Kyle to talk the unique subject matter his solo exhibition looks at.
For him art started in school, although he didn’t see himself as artistically inclined, and it wasn’t till an established photographer in Windhoek took him under her wing and showed him some of the basics of photography, that Kyle thought of photography as a calling in his life.
The exhibition, which brings together two opposing narratives, is four years in the making, although Kyle notes that it probably started before, as he travelled to the Kunene region often as a young boy and fell in love with the people and the landscape of this region. Kyle notes that “four years ago I started photographing the environment of the Kunene region and the people that live there, especially the OvaHimba people.”
Kyle goes on to explain that, “I felt that the photographs I have seen taken of the OvaHimba people don’t really contribute to the formation of a contemporary Himba identity. I saw that the people were modernizing but the images that were being taken of them were not showing their modernization at all.”
Kyle says this troubled him as this is not representative of the evolution of these people and their battle to hold onto their heritage in a world of modernity. “I realized that young Himba men are hardly ever photographed because they tend to wear mostly western clothing and so do not fit the image most tourists have in their minds of Himba people. I wanted to contest the view of the Himba as being unchanging and document the shift towards modernity in young Himba men; to show that they are evolving with modernity and finding the balance between tradition and the modern world.”
The second body of work in Kyle’s latest exhibition came after he photographed Himba men and returned to the Kunene Region to give each man he photographed a print out of the image he took of them along with a thank you note in their mother tongue. It was then that Kyle was shown a traditional practice that, while outlawed for conservation purposes, shows how the Himba people keep their heritage alive even in modern times. Kyle explains that the practice in question is that of milking the Makalani palms. A controversial practice for conservation fears of damage to the plant species, yet one the Himba people feel has been part of their culture for centuries, without there ever being damage done to the plant species as only older palms are ever milked. This provided Kyle with a snapshot of the difficulties faced in keeping a traditional culture alive in modern times.
Kyle recalls “My thesis while I was studying was on representation of African people and this really informed my whole approach to photography. If you look at the history of photography in Africa, colonial photography, where the camera was used as a tool of oppression by colonizing countries that travelled here and photographed people in a way that would feed into negative stereotypical depictions of African people back home. There is always a relationship between the photographer and the subject; there is always a power play between what the person being photographed wants and what the photographer wants. That is one of the reasons that I decided to do more of a self-portrait project with the young Himba men I photographed. I wanted to minimize my influence of the images and give them an opportunity to represent themselves as they want to be seen.”
This young Namibian is challenging ideas we have about people and photography. He notes though that “I have to often remind myself to enjoy the journey; artists in general are very quick to compare themselves to others and I think comparison is the thief of joy. I have had to teach myself that.”
Kyle’s unique talent is in hot demand, especially after he recently won the prestigious Magnum Photography Awards in the Fine Arts category. Kyle explains, “It’s one of the biggest photography competitions in the world. I entered the work I did on the collection of Palm Wine Collectors and won first prize for the fine art category. That’s hugely propelled my career. In the past month I have received emails from around the world, from the New York Times and other amazing publications that want to feature my work.”
Next up for this artist is an exhibition in London next year and plans to take contemporary African images across the world.
‘Kyle Weeks – a solo exhibition’ opens at the National Art Gallery of Namibia on the 2nd of August and runs until the 27th of August.
For more of Kyle’s breath taking fine art photography, take a look at his website by clicking here : Kyle Weeks