The African Kimono

Jana von Hase/Bruckner

2019 - Ongoing

This is the story of my friend Ina, a Namibian fashion designer and artist. She is also a mother of three young children. But most of all this is a woman, who refuses to give up her identity and her dreams as an artist in a yet young African democracy, which shoulders the burden of an unforgiven colonial legacy and the task of building cultural bridges of forgiveness.

Ina’s history is as as rich as is the history of the house that she lives and works in. A densely textured space, steeped in history, it is a mind opening experience arriving at her doorstep. Two sun bleached cracked elephant skulls, leaning desolately against the exterior walls are a reminder of a bygone era, so is a lonely mannequin minus arms. She welcomes me and opens a sturdy iron gate leading into a rich and entirely unusual artist’s space called ‘The Camel Stables Studio’.

With the advent of German colonialism in South West Africa the arrival of the first field-guns and additional troop-contingents in Windhoek as from August 1893, introduced the necessity of constructing a storage facility for the artillery and ammunition and to create accommodation for the troops. A site on the hill south-east of the Alte Feste was chosen for the construction of a ‘house for the artillery’ (Artilleriehaus), later referred to as ‘Kaserne’.

There are thick cracks in the walls, patched up in waiting of being plastered, wooden floors and creaking doors and windows over a hundred years old, decorated at every corner with African paintings and rich African textiles. With a smirk she tells me: ‘I know this space is haunted. I hear the ghosts in the roof at night.’ But this is Ina. Unafraid, a tireless artist and designer, a stretched mother of three, she seems unphased by the ghosts, a true artist, a restless soul searching for her own redemption from history.

Ina Maria Shikongo was born in Angola in a refugee camp called Kwanza Sul. Her father and mother moved to Angola to get away from the oppression of the apartheid system. Her father, a top general in the liberation movement Swapo, died in 1980, when she was 2 years old. She tells me: ‘My parents were never married and only saw each other that one time when they made me. I also never met my father.’

In 1985 Ina was moved to the former East Germany. Swapo had a deal with the communist block and exiled children from Namibia were sent to east Germany to be educated. She tells me: ‘This happened because in 1978 the South African Army attacked a refugee camp in Angola where many children lost their lives. That is when Swapo and the eastern bloc decided to send the teenagers to Cuba, Russia and other African countries and young children went to East Germany. After my dad passed, my uncle and his brother took me from my mother after I escaped death because I had Pneumonia and Anemia at the same time. I was 3 years old.’

She then came back from East Germany in 1990 after Independence of the new born country Namibia and she lived with her Uncle and his family. She finished primary and high school in Windhoek and went on to study Fashion design at the University of Namibia. Then in 2001 Ina left for France to study Fashion design. In 2004 Lille was the European city of Culture and Japan was featured.

Sitting in the beautiful light streaming through one of the old windows with the shutter of my camera clicking, she suddenly has a sparkle in her eyes: ‘I fell in love with Japan and since 2005 I have been playing with the idea of the Kimono. It has an etiquette of its own and is more to it than meets the eye. in 2006 I met French Fashion designer Fred Sathal, who was giving a workshop on her techniques, which is also based on the Kimono and since then, I find it difficult to work otherwise.’

Hearing her talk about her inspiration, I myself begin to wonder what it really takes to follow your dreams… ‘My dream is to go to Japan and learn about the philosophy of the Kimono and its different techniques…’She becomes pensive, and as a mother of three children myself I do understand her struggle: ‘Being a mother of three young children can be challenging, because they need a lot of care, but also because I can not just give up and go to Japan and that is why I would love to go with my entire family to live in a small town where Kimono makers still practice the art.The Kimono is an obsession and knowing so little about did not stop me in reinterpreting and appropriating it to my own cultures and identity.Having grown up in several countries does not make me a Namibian, but a citizen of the world and I celebrate myself, my culture, through my interests and passion and there for I am who I am Ina-Maria Shikongo’

So this photo essay is the story of my friend Ina Maria who dreams of learning the art of Kimono making so that she can craft the perfect African Kimono. I want to help her make her dreams come true. This photo essay speaks of her dreams, her talent and her struggle as an African designer to follow her destiny, despite history and the challenges of a woman confined by identity and society, but also an unbeaten spirit of survival and strength. As a woman, as an Artist.

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