A tale of six circles: a travelogue

“As regards the drawing, what am I doing? I really don’t know. I am no art critic or historian and certainly not much of a drawer. All I can say in my defense is that the text pretty much wrote itself as a continuous reaction to that one image. Sometimes I tell people it’s like lifting off the layers of an onion, one after the other –a familiar image, after all. But it is more accurate to say I was drawn along.”

Michael Taussig, 2011, I swear I saw this, p. xii.


Back in 1996, an ageing man drew six circles in my partner’s notebook. I had almost forgotten about it, but twenty years later I came across his drawing when going through my notes, looking for that one interview fragment I needed to finish my manuscript.

These six circles made me think:  this drawing, however gawky or clumsy, should I not take it seriously? After all, what he wanted to tell us back in 1996, was what mattered to him, what “tradition” (ombazu) meant to him.


As I started to reflect on this drawing (and on drawing as an anthropological genre and method) I also saw that Hyamakuma had outlined the contours of a moral universe.

This led to me digging up my old drawing board, and embarking on a first graphic project named after the six circles that ageing man in north Namibia once drew. In it, I combine text, dialogue, drawings, video stills and photographs in order to try to understand and explain what Hyamakuma tried to tell me, with the overall ambition being to evoke rather than analyze, to show rather than describe. This project also turned out to be more than a small side project to fill my Winter evenings: in its course I also grew convinced that this technique of montage also added to my own understanding of contemporary Himba life. After all, a discussion of Himba “tradition” (mind the scare quotes) should also include a discussion of the future, or of development or urbanization.

A few months later I ended up with a first short story, named after that original drawing. Also, it was the start of an exciting journey into graphic anthropology. As Taussig says in the preface to I swear I saw this, I was simply drawn along.

Here you can download the original version of Six Circles: the Directors_Cut . A slightly reworked and shorter version was published in Visual Anthropology Review (volume 33, issue 2), together with some comments.

Or you can download them here:


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