A spy in the Namib desert

The ever shifting sands of the Namib desert have provided infinite inspiration for a Swiss photographer, writes Valentine Cascarino Eboh

In the Namib desert there are forces constantly at war, some of them constructive and others destructive. The more dominant ones have the capability to change the nature of the place, transforming it randomly into different shapes and sizes. Such is the characteristic of the wind.

Most geographers believe the continuity of life in the Namib desert is at the mercy of the wind. From the ever-changing dunes to the cold Atlantic Ocean, to the seeds and other wind-borne living forms.

Along the Namib coast one finds sand dunes over 500km long, stretching from the Orange River up to the Kuisels River and then on to the port of Walvis Bay. According to geographer Dr Mary Seely, although these dunes are not the highest in the world, they are “by far the richest, biologically”. The dunes, which are without vegetation, have been invaded by a legion of endemic beetle species – diurnal, nocturnal, crepuscular, cylindrical and even saucer-like. The depth of the sand harbours other larval creatures, pursued by the predators such as the eyeless golden mole.

Each night and day a different life rhythm is played out. If the wind is too strong or the fog too late (which also depends on the wind), the life pattern of the dune inhabitants changes, and some of the dunes may even be erased.

It was an admiration for the wind’s activity that led solitary Swiss photo- lithographer, Hansruedi Buchi, to creep on to the sand dunes like a sniper, to capture the minute-by-minute changes of the dunes on camera.

About his fascination with the wind’s work in the desert, Buchi says: “For many years, my wife and I have regularly visited the red dunes of the Namib.

“On extensive hikes we have continued to discover new shapes, patterns and formations. Light and colour vary to an amazing degree depending on the hour of the day and the time of the year. However, there are moments when you want to leave the area quickly, when violent winds change it suddenly into howling dust bowls.”

That didn’t prevent Buchi from undertaking his expedition. He kept on snapping away through his 35mm lens, and as result of his bravery he was rewarded with a splendid collection of large format photographs he’s titled The Fascinating Namib – now on exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Buchi is one of the few Swiss artists who have made a name for themself without government assistance. His works have recently been exhibited in Switzerland, the National Art Gallery in Windhoek and in Stellenbosch.

These days the Swiss government supports the artist, and the South African exhibition is a stepping stone to further consolidating the cultural relationship between the two countries. As Swiss Consul General Fred Jenny, who officially opened the exhibition on January 24 puts it, the high importance attached to the relationship is clearly demonstrated by the creation, in 1998, of the Arts Council of Switzerland in Cape Town. The only other Art Council office in Africa is in Cairo.

Buchi’s extensive voyages around the world – to Asia, North and South America, Europe, Oceania and Africa – have helped him become a keen observer, making him an artist of epic proportion.

According to Jenny, Buchi’s method is slow and premeditated: “Before taking photographs he observes, day and night, the changes of the Namib dunes. He concentrates on the life which exists in this enormous sea of sand. He does this in areas which are not easily accessible. He must be a very patient man.”

Buchi himself has described the virtually insurmountable barriers he has had to go through to achieve his goal: “The dunes are not easily accessible,” he says.

“Sossusvlei, the most popular place to visit, consists of a series of clay pans scattered between stark dunes which rise over 300m. Every couple of years the floods of the Tsauchab River enter the dune system where lagoons or even smaller lakes are formed in the pan.”

As a photographer, Buchi claims to love challenges thrown at him by nature: “I love to return to this fascinating part of the desert for new inspiration, not only to take more photographs but also for the peace and solitude this unique place offers.”

To many of the guests that attended the exhibition’s opening, the photographs are more than just images of magnificent sand dunes. One remarked that on close inspection the landscape appears like cream or chocolate. The pictures, like the dunes themselves, are enticingly deceptive.

The Fascinating Namib, photographs by Hansruedi Buchi, runs at the Johannesburg Art Gallery until March 5

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