An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, Heritage Stolen

When you steal a culture’s art, you steal their soul.

When you vandalize their art, their ritual objects, you attack an entire people.

Tonight, I feel violated.

This is not a happy story. It is certainly not an expected story.

It is the story of the Jews of Windhoek, Namibia, Africa.

There are 30 families, at most. There are barely any children. My daughter, Hannah, just became the most eligible woman of marriageable age among the Jews here. I know because someone tonight made a point of mentioning it. She is moving here to attend university.

But that is not the story. The story is about a small congregation that was defiled twice in the last two months. Everything of value was stolen…. furniture, catering equipment, books, dishes, prayer books.

The last robbery occurred last Shabbat –the sabbath marked from sundown Friday to an hour after sundown Saturday. The lights are on a timer, because observant Jews do not turn on and off lights on the sabbath. It was after 11 pm, when the lights go off.

Unable to switch on the lights, the robbers tore pages from prayer books and copies of sacred text, and set them ablaze to light their way.

First violation.

Then they used the Hanukkah menorah to pry open cabinets. It broke.

Second violation.

Then they stole all the furniture they could, the dishes for meals, silver flatware, silver kiddush cups and other valuable ritual objects.

Third violation.

Then they headed for the ark, where the Torah, the sacred texts are kept. Maybe they knew that the Torah scrolls have no market value. They left them alone.

First blessing.

Then they tore the tzeddakah box (charity box) from the wall. How much could it have contained? $10?

Fourth violation.

The cupboard that protected all the items for Passover, which may only be used then, was broken and ransacked.

Fifth violation.

The shul is old….built in 1924. There are no funds to replace these things. Holiday celebrations as a community are ruined. There are so few people left, will they bother to go on? Staff hasn’t been paid in three years. They show up anyway.

This is community. But it’s soul is shattered. Religious art is the oldest, most dear to us. When our places of worship are defiled, our souls are sullied.

Still, tonight, in a 91-year-old shul, we celebrated the Sabbath… with four men and four women — not enough for a minyan, even if the women were counted, which we weren’t.

Still, there was community. There was hope. There was joy.

Greatest blessing of all.

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Damaged Hanukkah menorah in Windhoek shul. The ark is in the background.

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An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, Sister Artists

20 January
Windhoek, Namibia

I thought it was going to be an ordinary day in Windhoek. Hannah and I are navigating the bureaucracy of getting her registered for school (my daughter is attending university here for the next three years. It is complex and foreign.) There hasn’t been time for touring… we’re here on business. Secure housing, get a phone, learn where the good supermarket is, learn the safe routes around town on foot. It’s daunting to move across the globe when you are 18.

As we walk from place to place (then back again to retrieve a forgotten passport — OY!) we see street vendors selling their wares. Tourists are few and the vendors are aggressive. They have bills to pay.

I have spent a lot of time over the years doing exactly the same thing, hoping the next browser will pick up a piece, love it and hand over the money.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed. Most vendors have the same things for sale. Most will admit they did not make the item. Most have been imported from outside Namibia.

I want authentic. Baskets, wooden bowls, trinkets, carved animals — all the same.

Hannah and I finished lunch and walked several blocks to a spot when vendors set up shop. More of the same. I can resist until I decide. Or walk away. In India and China I got pretty good at bargaining. China was easy. I knew they were trying to overcharge me by 90 percent, and many were brusque and rude. I can be that, too.

In Namibia there is a difference. There is a desperation in their eyes, not just their voices. They need this sale.

As we walked and I looked and waved off vendors, we came to four Himba women. They pounced on us with warm smiles. Within seconds I had a dozen beaded and corded bracelets on each arm. Necklaces rounded my neck without my knowing how they got there. If I took off a bracelet, three more appeared in its place. How much? No, too much. We bargained, we talked. Then the most remarkable thing happened. We started talking to each other as women. The six of us. Four bare-breasted, two western dress. Women. Some of us mothers. All of us daughters. Sisters.

I noticed the ochre that is all over their bodies, making their skin an exquisite deep red, was covering my neck and arms. We exchanged names, we shook hands warmly, again and again. We agreed on prices. I bargained a little, but I knew I was paying too much. And I was buying more than I wanted.

They had made these treasures. And customers were few.

“Here’s a free one,” one of the four said. Hannah started to say no, thank you. No, never refuse a gift.

I asked if I could return tomorrow to take portraits. I’m not walking around with my camera on days when we are trying to get administrative tasks done. It’s too heavy and it makes me look like more of a mark than already I am!

So I will return tomorrow, they will pose for me. We are no longer strangers. We are sister artists and we know how to talk to each other.

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Hannah getting fitted by a Himba woman. Note the massive number of bracelets! We couldn’t buy all of them! ©2015 Jeane Vogel Studios

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An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, Katutura Township

19 January 2015
Windhoek, Namibia

I’m still trying to figure out what the guidebooks mean when they say that a trip to Katutura Township near Windhoek is a “must see!”

Tourists have more money to spend on a dinner than many of these residents have in a month. Many live on US$200 a year, or less.

So, is it to see the unemployed men hoping for some money? A boy who follows us around hoping for some food (my friend gave him some meat he just bought. Hannah and I had nothing.) Or maybe to witness the poverty. Not every home was desperate, but many were.
The people. That’s the only reason to go anywhere.

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A boy, begging for a coin, earned it with a pose instead. Look at those eyes.

To say that Hannah and I stood out in the Katutura market, where mostly meat was being butchered and cooked on the braai (bbq), is to state the incredibly obvious. I was first met by a boy who begged for a coin. I said no, but I would pay him for a picture. He agreed. The sadness in his eyes troubled me deeply. But he is one of millions of children in this world who earn his meals this way.

There were no tourists at the market on this Sunday afternoon. There was meat, and there were animal parts not needed this moment. Hooves, cattle heads, entrails. Most of the meat not on the braai was covered in flies. Covered. In. Flies. These are the sights of which vegetarians are made…or confirmed! There were a few baskets of beans, and meal worms, purchased by the pound. And spices of course! In an adjacent building were small shops. Two tailors who made beautiful, colorful dresses and bright green and blue school uniforms were happy to pose for me. Their work was exquisite!

But these are not the reasons to come to Katutura. Come for the people. Talk to the people!

As we drove slowly through the streets, I tried to smile and wave to people. Everyone, to a person, responded in kind. I saw a group of women sitting in their yard and asked if we could talk to them. As in China, when Helen and Iris were invaluable in helping me communicate with people, my friend Ferdinand made wonderful introductions. Besides, he is tall and handsome and speaks all the languages. What woman could resist? Of course they say yes to him!

Anastasia was there with a few other women, and many boys. No girls in sight. The boys wanted to pose with American gansta signs, and we laughed together as I called them on it. Anastasia fixed her make up for the portrait and struck a pose. She was magnificent. We talked, shook hands Namibian style (do your cultural homework!) many times, chatted with the boys and shot and shot. I shot A LOT, and she finally laughed and waved me off.

The visit was warm and friendly and genuine.

The people. That’s the only reason to go anywhere.

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Anastasia, A Herero Woman, resident of Katatura Township

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An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, First Impressions

We woke to African birdsong.

The travel was from St. Louis was long. Three planes, more than 36 hours travel time. Namibia is not set up for travel from the US. It’s easier to get here from Asia or Europe.

Americans simply do not have a concept of the size of this continent, partly because our maps are wrong. Africa is drawn smaller than it is. It’s really time to change our maps. But that’s another issue.

The drive from the airport to the city, about 45km, shows the beauty of the desert. Springbok were everywhere! Windhoek was founded by German Colonialists who were shown the deep water sources here… an oasis in the desert. The surface is dry but the water flows below. Life can be sustained and lived well.

It is hot. And the altitude is that of Denver. I felt it this morning on a walk to the market for supplies.

Just a brief description. Namibia is bordered by South Africa on the southeast, Angola on the north, Botswana on the east. It is the twice the size of California, but with only 2 million people. It was part of the South African Apartheid system until Namibian independence in 1990. The first free election in South Africa was 1994. This is a young country. Inequities still exist, of course, but Namibia has done a better job of finding reconciliation between whites, blacks and mixed race people. Many people still live in traditional ways, though much of their land and cattle stolen by colonials have not been returned. It’s still an issue, but one that is managed in the Namibian way.

What is the Namibian way? Slower, kinder, friendlier. People are helpful and open, but unemployment is 40%, so there are men who will watch your car for a coin or offer you directions. They aren’t beggars, but they do want a little something.

I was told that white women generally do not walk. White tourists walk. And students, I suppose! The taxis “beeped” at Hannah and me constantly as we walked to the market. The city is not “city like,” but more like a rural town with lots of room between homes and businesses. There is no bustle, there are no “blocks,” but wide roads lined by walls and gates that protect the homes or businesses within. There is petty crime, not violent. Mostly the walls create private outdoor living spaces, not armed fortresses.

The feel is organic, slow-paced, and not as materialistic or commercial as North America, Europe or Asia.

We are staying in a guest house that is a compound of smaller buildings.
We have access to a kitchen in a separate building. There is no AC but the slower pace and the building construction — and the lack of humidity — make it bearable. The city does not generate a lot of heat from air conditioning and industry, so the temperatures dip to the 60s at night and the sky is remarkably clear. The air is clean.

There is a garden of succulents, a small pool, a patio and an open eating area. The food is wholesome, fresh and tastes amazing.

Today, we rest and explore a bit. Still I hear the African birdsong.

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View from the garden.

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Jumping Off a Cliff: The Next Journey Begins

Queens, NY

It’s almost midnight and my daughter, Hannah, and I have arrived at our hotel for the next 7 hours. Tomorrow morning we board a South African Airlines flight that 24 hours from now will land us in Windhoek, Namibia.

Haven’t heard of it? Most Americans haven’t. It’s ok. Look it up. It’s stunning.

But this isn’t a story of geography… it’s a story of trust.

Hannah is the main character, but every student I’ve met, ever aspiring artist and photographer who has ever asked me for advice, also plays a role in this play.

Just a little background: my daughter was born to me when I was 40. I was of an age when dreams start to fade. Moms of my generation often realize that we have to launch our children early, or not at all. From birth, she wanted to be around animals. And she has my love for travel, longing to experience new people, new places, new sensations. Long story-short, she is attending university in Namibia to study natural resource management. Not semester abroad… four years.

How can you let her go? I’m asked that a lot. Because that’s who we raised her to be.

But why? Because dreams are unreal until you are brave enough to take the first step. How many dreams are deferred because it’s not practical, or expensive, or misunderstood?

There’s a cliff looming in front of you. And you have to be brave enough — and supported enough — to step off into the unknown. And you have to be trusting enough to know the net will be there.

That brings me back to the artists who call me for advice. They seem to think I have “made it” ( I haven’t), or I know the secret (I don’t.)

What I do know, is that fear stops 90 percent of people from taking that first step toward their goal.

So, what’s my advice? KNOCK IT OFF! Be brave. Take that step already!

You’ll be surprised who’s holding your net.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 11 July 2014

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The Western at the Great Wall,” photo by Iris Lau

Every student in the workshop had to have their photo taken with me. I was a “famous artist” from America, even though I told them I wasn’t. They thought I was being modest. No, really. I’m ordinary. Not to them.

And I expected that many artists wanted a photo op after my lecture and presentation. Only one artist wanted to yell at me… the rest wanted to be close to a “famous American artist.” Again, not so famous. Pop, pop, pop. I hope I was patient, as much as I hate to be photographed. Ironic, eh?

It happened a couple of other times. Someone would approach me: picture? Then every member of the family had his turn.

It’s fair. I ask to take pictures of people I find interesting or exotic. Not that many Westerns still venture here, so exotic. And I was somewhat approachable. I was traveling with a group of women, but was often separated from them as I sought the best angle or light, or examination of a detail. I hope I looked friendly. I know I looked odd.

The group at the top of the Great Wall were the most insistent… At least a dozen people had to have their photo with me. What were they thinking? They were friendly, but were they mocking me? Did they want their friends to see how large Americans really are? Were they just excited to put their arm around a stranger?

Was I friendly enough? I tried, but it was a strange sensation all around. All I hoped was: one more photo for world peace!

*****

Today was my last full day in Beijing, in China. A few brief impressions:

–This is a land of contradictions.

–The proper Chinese way to hand something to someone is with two hands, and a slight bow. It took some practice but now feels natural. I’m insulted when handed things with one hand. I’m being dismissed as unimportant. On the other hand, people seem surprised and honored when I do it the “right” way. Another “world peace” moment.

–Young people here don’t have hobbies. They work. They go to bars. They sing kareoke. Volunteer opportunities are rare, too.

–Chinese are a deeply spiritual people, many practicing Buddhism and Taoism. Western religions might have problems here, but traditional Chinese religions seem to have many practioners. Anyone who says China is godless is a Cold War bore.

–Roaches are everywhere. EVERYWHERE.

–I’m open to new foods, as long as they are vegetarian. I tried and liked dozens, including bamboo root, seaweed noodles, candied taro, dragon fruit.

— On hospitality on restaurants: there isn’t any.

–Also no napkins. Carry tissues. Handy for the squat tiolets, too.

–Police and soldiers are everywhere… and they are unarmed. Still, they are scary.

–Children are allowed to run wild. Conformity comes later. I’m not a fan of this practice.

–Make no mistake: Capitalism reigns here. Everyone has a business. Everyone is trying to make a yuan. Everyone.

–Chinese are a fiercely patriotic people. Their middle class is stronger than ours. Don’t get cocky.

–There is pork in everything. EVERYTHING.

–Flowers are nowhere to be found. I was delighted to see roses growing along the highway in Beijing, but that was the only place. This is a land of extraordinary natural beauty, but there is no beauty in thier lives. It’s a gray place.

–The people who know you are wonderful. Strangers are not, with the exception of older women. Always a connection there.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 10 July 2014

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Fan Dancers, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios

I row two to three days a week to try to be fit, I have a daughter who just graduated from high school, I have a mortgage I will never pay off…. I do not think of myself as old.

In China, women must retire at age 56; men at 60. That’s the definition of elderly. Sure, lives are harder here. But still, this age feel young.

My guide in Beijing was shocked to learn I was nearly 58. That’s old! Of course, he was also shocked to learn there were many poor people and homeless people in America… apparently, we all are rich! He didn’t believe that my family home is half the size of his family home. He was taught we all lived in mansions. But that’s another blog.

So, as a woman two years past retirement age, I should be dancing or doing exercises in the park, playing mahjong, caring for my grandchildren. I should not be working. Working is for the young.

I look at the women who are my age and they DO look old. They also look happy. I bow and smile and greet them. They bow and smile and greet me back. We are crones. Our children are raised. We can play. Our lives have been returned to us.

Crones know each other.

Younger people here are so rude to me, at least ones who do not know me. It’s not just me. It’s not personal. Push, yell, ignore.

The ones who have become friends are solicitous, making sure I find the step, hold an umbrella over me against the sun, pour more tea. The older women are kind, thoughtful, friendly. We don’t need a common language. We have one.

It’s an immediate sisterhood, this momentary connection we crones have. We know stuff. We know a lot of stuff. But if no one listens, we don’t care: we will fan dance in the park with others our age, knit on the bench together, play a game. Sing a song.

We don’t care. We are happy.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 9 July 2014

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Atop the City Wall, Xi’an China, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios

There’s something about standing on a 700-year-old wall, peering out at the moat through an archer’s window, taking in the ancient while dwarfed by the modern high rises towering overhead, that is humbling and a little terrifying. What does this wall mean to me? What does it matter?

And what are national treasures, really? I just toured the Forbidden City. (Sorry, photos will have to wait until I return to the States… the iPad refuses to import more photos, though I will try again!)

It was crowded and boisterous. I was in awe of the artistry, the history, the stories of emperors and concubines and lives ruined or elevated on a whim. This expansive complex, with a garden I could spend a lifetime admiring, all for one emperor. Who needed walls? And gates? And 27 bedrooms to shuffle his sleeping habits so as to foil assassins?

The Forbidden City is a magical mystery tour. Yet, this treasure, this planetary historic masterpiece, had trash dropped carelessly on the marble courtyards, and bottles tossed in the ponds and moat, and one teen mindlessly attacking an ancient wall with a frozen water bottle. Thank god he wasn’t Western. But I wanted to run up to him and demand he stop, before more of the tiles cracked. This is our human heritage! This is one of those places that shapes our worldview. If we don’t understand the nuances of the culture and history, it’s too easy to go to war. And the artistry! How DARE you attack the art, just because it looks like a common wall.

We shamelessly treat the treasures of our species like common tourist traps. It will hurt our hearts.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 8 July 2014

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“The Knitter,” ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios

Most of the shopkeepers and vendors were not yet open. This is a street that is keeps trading hours into the wee hours of the morning, and vendors open late.

She was sitting in front of her wares… I have no idea what they were… alone, near the end of the street. The few shopkeepers around are yelling, cajoling, following the few early shoppers.

She was knitting. Buy something, don’t buy something. She was knitting. I greeted her in the few words of Mandarin I have. She smiled. I motioned to her knitting. I motioned to my camera. Could I photograph her? She waved me away, not harsh, but clear. Ok. I thanked her.

A few minutes later I caught up to the two young Chinese women, recent college grads, who I’m traveling with. I told them about the woman. Would they go talk to her with me?

Tell her I’m a knitter, I said. Tell her I love her face and want to remember it.

They spoke. She demurred. They delivered my message. She, modestly agreed.

I do love her face. I do want to remember it. I will remember it.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 7 July 2014

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Bamboo rafting on the Li River, north of Guilin, ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios, Digital Infrared
I’m watching the karst mountain peaks recede as the China South 737 lifts us away from what must be one of the most beautiful places on the planet… and one of the most familiar to any student of Chinese art.

It’s also a place of stark contradiction, like everywhere you step in China.

The unusual peaks have an extraordinary beauty in their structure. Like the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, the peaks are layered, one behind the other as they fade into the horizon. Look carefully, and you’ll see a ruined former temple or pagoda perched impossibly on a narrow crag, still proclaiming its purpose. Mist hangs between them.

Unlike other peaks, these formations sit amid large expansions of flat, arable land. Through them flows the Li River and her many tributaries. This is the fisherman’s home, and many still catch and cook right on a bamboo raft on the water’s edge.

If you have seen a Chinese brush paintings of the mountains, you have seen karst of Guilin.

Contrast this beauty with power lines crossing the rivers and hills, cell towers perched atop them… the magic is gone. There is construction everywhere to accommodate the people relocating here to work in the area’s main industry, tourism. The construction replaces the crumbling buildings, hastily built just a generation ago.

Guilin is certainly a tourist destination. Get out of the van and four women try to sell us trinkets. We’re taking a river trip on a bamboo raft.

This is a watercraft like no other. Think Hunk Finn the on the Mississippi. Eight bamboo poles, each about six inches in diameter and maybe 12 feet long. There is enough room for two secured chairs, an umbrella, and a riverman who guides the raft by pushing the river bottom with a 15-foot pole. It often disappears below the surface of the water.

There are hundreds of tourists on these bamboo rafts, and yes, you can get wet.

Touristy? Yes. Stunning in beauty and a glimpse into the rural Chinese world? Without question.

This is the land of Chinese brush painting. Not even the cell towers can mar it for long.

20140707-180111.jpgBamboo rafts fill the river with tourists, but nothing can spoil the natural splendor. ©2014 Jeane Vogel Studios, Digital Infrared

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