Tradition, Modernity and Da Vinci | Christopher Rimmer takes us behind the scenes in his latest project in Africa, Confluence

While 'Confluence' might document an ancient culture, there's nothing old-fashioned about it. Rather, Christopher Rimmer's new series is a must-see mediation on the tension between modernity and tradition. Speaking about politics, money, risk and the richness of Africa, read all about the process behind documenting Africa's last remaining tribes. 

The artist along the Kunene River in southern Africa. 

Tell us about the process behind your new series, ‘Confluence – Tradition & Modernity and the Last Tribes of the Kunene River’? 

Confluence examines the amalgamation of tradition and modernity among the tribes living along the Kunene River, which forms the natural border between Angola and Namibia in South Western Africa. It is a visual narrative through photography which documents the transition between these two forces.

As a series of portraiture, it continues my process of deconstruction in capture, so the viewer is persuaded to focus simply on form, colour and expression with a minimum of distraction.

I used a translucent scrim as a backdrop, which transmits a sense of place, but does not all allow the background to distract from the subject. This was a common device used in Renaissance portraiture including I believe, Da Vinci when he painted the Mona Lisa.

Christopher Rimmer 'Mwila Matriarch, Southern Angola' left and the Mona Lisa right. 


The photographs featured in Confluence are all naturally lit. The morning sun makes the scrim translucent and the same light is reflected back to illuminate the subject. The portraits were all shot using a Hasselblad camera with a standard lens.

What inspired you to start this project?

Well, as you know I’ve been using the border region between Namibia and Angola as a backdrop to my work for some years now and I’ve travelled extensively throughout the Kunene Valley for the past decade.

One thing I have noticed first and foremost, is the encroachment of modernity and the culturally corrosive effect that it has on the tribes living in this area but also how rapidly this change is occurring. The question: is this a force for good or bad?

The artist reviewing images with his subjects. 

I noted that much of this change seems to be driven by evangelical church interests based in the U.S. Should this be of concern or are they just there to lend a hand?

I was also keen to shoot a human portraiture project since my last body of work, Amapondo, was an animal portraiture project, which featured the cattle herds of the Xhosa people who live on the East coast of South Africa.

I was concerned I was becoming pigeon holed as a photographer of animals when in fact; photographing human beings is my primary interest. It always makes me cringe when I see my name in the media prefaced by ‘Wildlife photographer,’ since I am anything but.

What were some of the observations you made during your two-year placement along the Kunene River?

There’s a lot of Chinese development money flowing into this area currently due to some of the valuable natural resources available. There is talk once again of damming the Kunene River in order to develop a hydroelectric scheme.

The catchment of this dam would flood all the traditional grazing pastures of the tribes who live here and effectively wipe them out because their lives are interconnected with their cattle herds in so many complex ways both practically and spiritually.

The artist conversing with some children.

The expansion of the urban center of Upuwo on the Namibian side has attracted many tribal people from the bush with predictable results. Alcoholism, domestic violence and prostitution are on the increase as the traditional tribal values and structures that previously made life cohesive and constant gradually erode in the face of the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of western inspired progress.

The flow on effects are by no means all negative; the people now have better access to modern Western standard health care and education but it must be remembered that the people of this region already possessed a complex pharmacopeia of natural remedies which they have employed for generations and they also had a rich oral tradition of stories and process used to educate their young people and prepare them for life in their communities.

In short, whilst never culturally static, they had all they required in order to live happy and fulfilled lives and the pace of change, such as it was in the past, was far less rapid that it is now.

In discussing this project, you have talked about the ambivalent effect of Western aid on communities like the Ovahimba people. How do you place yourself as a South-African raised, but now Melbourne-based photographer in that relationship?

I don’t see the fact that I was raised in South Africa as being worthy of any special consideration when it comes to gaining insight into what is occurring in the Kunene valley. The agents of change seem to be coming first and foremost from U.S. based Christian groups and NGO’S. Some comes from the EU too.

Christopher Rimmer 'Ovazimba Maiden, Namibia'

I met the deputy Prime Minister of Namibia when I commenced this project and he told me that the Ovahimba were something of an embarrassment to political elites in Windhoek (Namibia’s capital) who wish Namibia to be seen as a modern, progressive nation and open for business with the world. They see the tribes of this area as archaic and backward and of little use other than as a means of attracting tourism revenue.

What do you see is the artist’s role in facilitating difficult conversations, like those of the tension between tradition and modernity raised by ‘Confluence’?

As a photographer, I see it as my role to shine a light on this dichotomy by drawing attention to the human beauty and the complex systems of kinship that are being lost and are being replaced by a homogenized; one size fits all human existence; the type we are so familiar with in the West where our human function seems to be primarily a cradle to grave contribution to the growth of the economy whilst being anthethsized by possessions, sport and celebrity gossip by way of reward.

I approach this by hopefully creating striking and graphically compelling portraits of what exists currently. My hope is that these photographs contain a narrative about the past and a subtle warning about the future as well as illustrating the curious cultural hybrid that is created momentarily as one era ends and another commences. The two forces could not be more different to each other and the rapid nature of the change is disturbing to me. I hope the viewer feels this when they contemplate the photographs I have made.

I have deliberately employed stylistic devices from the era of exoticism so the astute viewer is aware that the photographer is an outsider looking into a world unfamiliar.

A 19th century 'exotic' postcard left and Christopher Rimmer 'Ovazimba Woman & Baby, Namibia' right. 

What did you learn most from this project?

I have learnt so much from the past two years; it would be impossible to articulate in a short interview. I may write a book in the future as I have kept diaries and copious amounts of notes relating to this project.

I guess the main thing I have learned is that the people of this area are not attractions in some human zoo who exist for the benefit of people in the west to recognize what they have lost from their own past.

We don’t have any right to deny them any benefits they perceive from what we regard as progress but it has to be on their own terms and not imposed in order to make great white saviors and Christian busy bodies or photographers for that matter, feel good about themselves.

Confluence’ is now available at Angela Tandori Fine Art.

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