Art & Photography

Behind the Frame: Namibia’s palm tree climbers

South Africa-based photographer Kyle Weeks reveals the story behind his striking image of a Namibian ‘palm tree tapper’

Image courtesy of Kyle Weeks, taken from his series 'Palm Wine Collectors'
Image courtesy of Kyle Weeks, taken from his series ‘Palm Wine Collectors’

I made this photograph on my return to Namibia’s Kunene region to distribute prints to the young Himba men who participated in my previous project titled Ovahimba Youth Self Portraits. During the journey to find those that I had previously photographed, I met a familiar young man who led me through the palms and introduced me to the ‘tapping’ process for the first time (where sap is extracted from palm trees to make an alcoholic drink called ‘Otusu’).

I knew that these palms are protected in Namibia, and that tapping these palms is a banned practice. Nonetheless, after having spoken to these men, it became clear that they believe it’s their right to continue utilising their land as they have for generations. They argue against Namibian law, and stay true to cultural traditions that respect the use of these palms and, in turn, believe they’re promoting conservation on a cultural level.

I had previously focussed on the modernisation of the Himba people, which came in the form of appropriating Western dress, but the ancient cultural act of tapping these Makalani palms presented a completely different facet of their lives. By producing these portraits I began to recognise the complexities and dynamism of the lives of these men, seeing that, although there clearly is a shift toward modernity, a strong kinship to tradition is maintained.

Kyle Weeks: A Solo Exhibition runs from the 2–27 August 2016 at the National Gallery of Namibia. It is Weeks’ first exhibition in Namibia and the first showcase of his full ‘Palm Wine Collectors’ series.