Zeno’s Paradox: the making of

As I explain on the introductory page to the short comic on Zeno’s Paradox, this one was a hard one to make. Not because of the technicality of the drawings, or the twists of the plot (it is, after all, a rather simple story), but because, precisely, of the fact that it is pretty straightforward (at least, at first sight).

It basically started when I was thinking of drawing a short comic to get familiar with my new drawing pad, and as so often I got carried away by the possibilities offered by this new gizmo. For a week or two, I spent my evenings drawing tortoises and antelopes (in a way, according to my housemates, that reminded them of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining), and brushed off my knowledge of Namibian flora and fauna.

Mr. Tortoise, by the way, is modelled after a serrated tortoise (Psammobates oculifer); Mr. Duiker after a grey or common duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia).

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Makalani nuts, expertly carved and personalized to sell as souvenirs.

But a realist approach did not really work, in the sense that it did not serve the narrative. I was stuck, until I remembered my collection of carved makalani nuts –the souvenirs that vendors try to sell to tourists and that usually depict animals and geometrical motives. This tourist art also inspired me to, besides the black and white original, come up with a colour version using the basic colour triad of black, red, and white.

These nuts, by the way, are the fruit of the real fan palm (Hyphaene petersiana). 

The next step then was that I threw out most of what I already had and instead turned towards a way more stylized, almost abstract drawing style, using heavy, straight and angled lines and throwing overboard most of the background detail, exception made for the palm trees. The thickset lines, the simple colour scheme, large frames and overall “flatness” of the graphics also serve to underline the fact that it concerns a story or parable, with a simple –though unclear– message.

Therefore, this little story served as a powerful reminder that it is often way more difficult to reduce and cut unnecessary detail than to hide behind complexity and convolution.

Never let reality come in the way of a good story.

Or not quite: what this means (and I am not talking here about our friends of the popular press) for anthropology is that narrative style, or even genre, should be functional to the message or analysis you want to bring. At the same time, what you say is highly dependent on how you say it (and vice versa).

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The making of: moving from rather realist to highly stylised ink drawings…

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Photography and me

What certainly contributed to me taking up pen and paper was my own struggle with photographing. I soon realized that pictures mean something different in the villages and towns of Kaoko than they do in a Western context and even when considering that local visuality (the meaning of images and of the technology to produce them) is changing, many Kaokolanders are rather suspicious of photography. This contributed to my own discomfort in taking and showing photographs for various reasons, including a lack of talent. At the same time, I realized that what and how I photographed had changed. One of my unfinished projects, then, was to document how this shift reflected a changing theoretical horizon and research interest.

What also contributed to my discomfort was, as a Namibian colleague expressed it, “I always get a little nervous when people bring up the Ovahimba” (Martha Bannikov, Pers. Comm., March 26 2017). In the public imagination, Himba women and men are often exoticized as the inhabitants of a timeless niche carved out in the African landscape, idealized as the perfect noble savage or demonized as dated and primitive. These representations go back a long way and are themselves the product of colonialism (for a critical appraisal, see Bollig & Heinemann–Bollig 2004; Hartmann et al. 1999; Henrichsen 2000; Rizzo 2005). Women in particular are being objectified as a tourism commodity or, conversely, often seen as an object of intervention, to emancipate, convert, or develop by the urban elites in Namibia. One returning question, then, is how one can avoid that photographs, despite one’s intentions, are interpreted along the lines of an established, othering canon? These questions are obviously nothing new. It remains however a continuing source of frustration that these insights fail to percolate into the public imagination. How do you avoid that, borrowing Alma Gottlieb’s (1999, 1) words, findings are “dumbed down” when trying to reach a wider audience? Could a more narrative ethnography contribute to the dissemination of scholarly insights?