Approach the exhibit hall of the Francois Mitterrand National Library of France (BnF) Donor’s Gallery in Paris, and the full on gaze of the headman of Etanga beckons to the visitor to enter. Head turned to watch as you approach, he is surrounded by cattle while standing there in his dry, dusty field. We not only see him, but we can hear him, the cattle, rhythmic clapping and the voices of others coming through speakers in the ceiling with the sounds of the Ovahimba community as they go about their day. This multimedia ethnography gives the immediate impression of collaboration by its intimacy, reflected through the lens of Rina Sherman’s fieldwork from 1997-2004.
The Ovahimba Years is an ethnographically rich multimedia exhibit to introduce us to the cattle farming people through their everyday lives and rituals in Etanga, a settlement in the north-west of Namibia and further north across the Kunene River border with Angola in the Provinces of Namibie and Cunene. Sherman’s ethnographic installation is based on seven years of fieldwork living among the Ovahimba, where she learned to speak with them in Otjiherero, a Bantu language spoken by numerous communities in the region. During this time, she amassed some 400 hours of video and sound recordings, 1700 negatives, 50 drawings and a number of hand drawn illustrations to communicate what life is like for the people who live here. By today’s standards, this is a relatively long stint in Etanga and is reminiscent of Flaherty’s work among the Inuit (1913-1920).
Such attention to detail is not surprising given that Sherman studied anthropology at the Sorbonne with Flaherty’s longtime admirer Jean Rouch. Sherman’s own participatory approach reflects influences not only from her mentor, but by including photos, sketches, drawings, and paintings by locals as well as by the ethnographer as a way to access the culture, Sherman demonstrates the richness of a holistic representation that can trace a line through anthropology’s history from Mead and Bateson to the more recent work of Ana Isabel Afonso (Pink, Working Images, 2004).
For example, the exhibit includes collaboration with a local assistant to document in drawings images of the Ovahimba people, places, and events. Sherman’s reflexive presence becomes evident as we see, hear, and watch her interactions within the community as visitors wander among these material markers on display. Aptly titled The Ovahimba Years / Rina Sherman, the exhibit is as much Sherman’s story of her time there as it is a tale of the Ovahimba.
Visitor experience is shaped by what we see and what we hear to enhance an ethnographic perspective. Framed individual portraits in color and in black and white line the walls alongside seven video monitors and speakers where we watch people build houses, hold meetings, and conduct rituals. We listen to their voices explain a dream or tell a story about one of the children. Sherman’s layered methodology illuminates the cultural meanings and social processes by what she refers to as “multi-planes” to help the viewers understand how Ovahimba construct meaning in their world. Their presence is brought to life with the use of materials, space, and acoustics. In the center of the room, material objects are on display under clear glass covers.
Here we find Sherman’s field notes, her journals, correspondence with Jean Rouch, receipts from supplies ordered and goods exchanged. Hand drawn maps of the area sit alongside her interview transcripts. One display case shows a collection of beautiful headrests, carved in wood alongside various instruments used to make them. A woman’s skirt made from calf skin and an intricate necklace hold our attention as material objects while also worn by a woman in the video nearby. We watch as the screens show us ritual sacrifices as part of the series on ceremonies, dances, children playing and people at work in the fields with the cattle. In contrast to a written ethnography, Sherman’s presentation allows the visitor intimate access through its non-linear, multi-layered approach, which envelops us in this field experience.
The Ovahimba Years as an exhibit keeps our focus on the ethnographic present as lived experience. The sounds and visuals of the place has garnered the attention of 17, 18, and 19 year old students who come through the installation as part of their ethnography and visual arts studies. As several teachers note, part of the impact of the installation can be found in the presence of the Ovahimba; rather than illustrating the culture and the daily experiences inwords, students can observe for themselves. Sherman has also made a point to be present and available to interact with various groups. The presence of the ethnographer with her work helps establish a link in time and space to create a significant opportunity in communication across cultures. While the BnF is not an ethnographic museum, the Paris location is a public venue with an emphasis on aesthetics and creativity. Sherman’s background as a photographer, filmmaker, and anthropologist help carry out this mission beyond a narrowly defined academic audience to a broader public.
Through good ethnography, we can see how even an act such as learning another’s language can open up new ways of understanding. As Sherman noted, “To speak in their language means I am here — not a visitor — not passing through.” Sherman’s eye and ear prompt the visitor to see the world of the Ovahimba through these shared experiences.
The Ovahimba Years. Curated by Rina Sherman. The Francois Mitterand National Library of France (BnF), Paris, Sept 29 – Nov 15, 2015. Venice – Fall 2016 and Namibia – 2017
Nancy Stein is a cultural anthropologist with a keen interest in the visual at Florida Atlantic U, where she is an adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is currently doing research for a book on images and human rights.