Namibia is a melting pot of various ancient tribes and as a result, traditional practices of arts and crafts have been passed down for generations.
Namibia has become renowned for its vast array of traditional crafts, ranging from basketry, pottery, textiles, painting and sculpture to working with wood, leather and beads. However, the modern art movement has had an influence on jewellery designs and ushered in the graffiti movement. The Namibia Craft Centre has the whole range of traditional crafts under one roof with over 25 stalls as well as the Omba Art Gallery. However, throughout Namibia there are street markets and curios vendors. These celebrated crafts make the perfect keepsake for travellers and visitors to Namibia.
The mostly feminine art of basketry is more typical of the northern tribes such as the Caprivi, Himba, Herero, Kavango and Owambo. The most common form of basketry is from weaving strips of Makalani palm leaves. These can be manipulated into various forms for varying utilities. For example, winnowing baskets are made out of flat shapes, carrier baskets are created from large bowl-shapes, and storage baskets crafted in small bottle shapes with lids. The varying shapes created in the weaving are achieved by using different colours of leaves which can be dyed dark brown, purple and yellow. The various geometric shapes are symbolically significant. A more modern addition has seen strips of recycled plastic being used.
Woodcarving is most often the craft of men in Namibia. Their tools are adzes, axes and knives. Decorative designs are created by carving, incising, and burning techniques. Wood products include headrests, instruments such as drums and thumb pianos, masks, walking-sticks, toys, figurines, bows, arrows, quivers, bowls, utensils, and furniture. The tradition of wood carving is seen extensively in the northern tribes of San, Caprivians, Damara, Himba, Kavango and Owambo.
Leatherwork is widely practised in Namibia and makes use of hides from cattle, sheep and game which are tanned and dyed with plant materials, animal fat or red ochre. Leather products include skins, bags, pouches, and karosses (mats or blankets). Clothing includes head-dresses, girdles, aprons, sandals, shoes, boots, handbags, belts and jackets.
The San and Himba people lead the way when it comes to beadwork in Namibia. Beads are created from ostrich eggshells, porcupine quills, seeds, nuts, branches, iron, shells, as well as commercial glass. Men generally create the actual beads while the women string them into their final pieces. These pieces include necklaces, bracelets, ankle bracelets and Alice bands. Beads are traditionally used by the San on their leatherwork bags, pouches and clothing as decoration, while the Himba traditionally use the iron-bead for leather head ornaments for women and belts worn by mothers.
The Namibia landscape and natural heritage has inspired endless unique jewellery designs. Namibian jewellery is created from natural materials sourced locally, including precious stones, gems, diamonds, wood, seed pods and shells. Materials are also sometimes sourced from elsewhere on the African continent, such as gold, silver and other mineral stones. Unique pieces are crafted into bracelets, necklaces, headwear, and ankle bracelets.
Typically a female dominated art, pottery is widely from the people of Caprivi, Kavango and Owambo. The differing shapes of pottery determine the utility of the vessels, which are traditionally decorated with various colours of geometric patterns. A modern movement has seen potters experimenting with textual decoration and varying motifs.
Traditionally, a patchwork style was adapted by the women of the Nama tribe in making clothing. This has since expanded into embroidering table and bed linen, cushion covers and wall-hangings depicting scenes of Namibian life. A newer craft is weaving karakul wool into patterns or landscape images. These are used to create wallhangings and mats.
Paintings, sculptures and prints
The urban areas of Namibia have a number of galleries which feature contemporary Namibian artwork from painters, sculptors and printers. The National Art Gallery of Namibia is the biggest and exhibits more than 560 artworks dating from 1864 to today. Early paintings depict landscapes and wild animals as well as the exhibition of the winning works of the Standard Bank Biennale. High-quality works can be found at many roadside markets throughout Namibia.
Although steeped in tradition, Namibia’s arts and crafts movement has opened up to modern forms. One such instance is seen in the graffiti movement and culture. It is slowly moving away from its vandalism tag and becoming embraced as an art movement which can convey effective beautiful messages. Marking a property without the owner’s consent is punishable by law in Namibia. However, Namibian graffiti artists as well as the communities are finding unique ways to embrace this. One such way is with community projects, for example the graffiti project of the Pionierspark play park jointly commissioned by the Brazilian Embassy, Franco-Namibian Cultural Centre, and Studio 77.