Namibian Star Shines in Bamako

Namibian Star Shines in Bamako

Published in the Flamingo (In-flight magazine of Air Namibia), April 2006

If you happened to be in Bamako, Mali, recently you would have been faced with the distinctly Namibian image of the interior of a sand filled house in Kolmanskop wherever you go. On every bus, on every open wall space, on the covers of newspapers and magazines, on numerous posters lining the main roads and hanging in huge banners from important buildings was the now world-famous photograph taken by Namibian photographer Helga Kohl.

Her image was announcing the 6th edition of the “Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie” (African Meeting of Photography), taking place from the 10th of November to 10th of December 2005, which has become the most important photography event in Africa. It is the gateway for many African photographers to international stardom. Namibian photographer Helga Kohl was one of the 110 selected African artists to exhibit at this significant exhibition. It is interesting to note that about 30% of the invited participants were women. Kohl was not only invited, but she was the star of the event! Her image was chosen to be the representative icon for the whole event and was used for the official posters, invitations, television advertising and as the front cover of the catalogue.

The event, under the theme “Another World”, was organized by the Association Francaise d’Action Artistique in Paris together with the Mali Ministry of Culture, and was curated by Simon Njami. The stunning images of Kolmanskop, taken by Kohl over a period of four years, suited this theme perfectly. Kohl’s works also convinced with their undeniable photographic excellence, as well as the aura of mystery, which Kohl expertly orchestrated with the play of light and shadow in her chosen subject.

Kolmanskop is a ghost town in the Namib Desert close to Lüderitz. The once elegant and prosperous diamond-mining town has been deserted when larger diamond fields were found further south. Over the years the desert and sand-blasting winds have reclaimed the town. Kohl, with her expert’s eye for composition and her incredible patience, has captured the eerie combination of past human glory and today’s desolation and ghostly destruction by the natural forces, in a profound manner.

“I still cannot believe it!” says Kohl, who is beaming with joy. “Finally my hard work and perseverance is paying off and I am receiving international recognition. It is a dream come true!” Kohl, who is one of the most passionate and dedicated people I have ever met, definitely deserves this recognition. After having completed her formal training in Germany, she has been working as a professional photographer for 35 years in Namibia. This is not an easy task and it is filled with many frustrations. It is especially hard to find colleagues and art experts with whom to share ideas and who have a similar understanding of the high degree of precision, diligence and patience, which form the basis for a perfect photograph according to Kohl.

No wonder Kohl cannot stop talking about the wonderful experience of being flown to Bamako, accommodated in a five-star hotel, being invited to a string of receptions with French and Malian dignitaries and meeting with so many of the other top African photographers. “I was treated like a star, but most of all I enjoyed to meet the various other photographers, exchange ideas and techniques and together view and discuss the many brilliant exhibitions on show.”

The French-Namibian Cultural Centre and the French Embassy in Namibia have been extremely supportive in assisting with and organising Kohl’s trip to Mali. Now they are also busy putting together a separate exhibition of Kohl’s photographs, in celebration of her achievements and to show her work to a larger audience within Africa. This exhibition will travel throughout the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region and to French cultural centres later this year.

Since her recent success in Mali, Kohl can feel how her career is now really taking off. She has received several requests from curators from all over the world who want to exhibit her work or like to make use of her images. Her participation in an exhibition of African art in San Francisco in 2007 has been confirmed, her image will be used to advertise a large annual book fair in Paris and several other requests still need to be considered by Kohl. The Bamako exhibition will also travel the world for the next two years, ensuring maximum exposure for Helga Kohl, Kolmanskop and Namibia.

To Namibians Helga Kohl is a well-known and respected personality in the art scene. Kohl was awarded a Fellowship in Fine Art Photography and another one in Architectural Photography by the Institute of Professional Photographers in Southern Africa (PPSA). She has won several awards in the annual Fuji Profoto Awards and the Standard Bank Namibia Biennale and has had solo and group exhibitions in Namibia, southern Africa and abroad.

Although her main focus lies in architectural and fine art photography, she has a keen interest in the San people and has undertaken documentary work detailing the day-to-day lives of these people who are situated in the eastern sections of Namibia. Another important aspect of her photography in an art and historical context is the documentation of the work of Namibian artists for the files and catalogues of the National Art Gallery of Namibia. In 1998 she received an Mbapira Award for the photography she did for the reference work “Art In Namibia”, published by the National Art Gallery of Namibia.

Helga Kohl has found her own metaphorical diamond trough her passionate documentation of the old diamond town Kolmanskop, which now has become the key to open many doors in her life. But her success also means that she has placed Namibia on the cultural world map, for the whole world to see.

(c)  Imke Rust

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