Eating is important – with Hildegard Titus (2019)

This interview series starts with Hildegard Titus who talked to me about her work as a freelance curator. Hildegard reflected on the curator’s ability to transform a space, either by actively creating access for individuals who have been previously excluded or by converting a non-institutional site into an exhibition space. Hildegard also spoke about the difficulty of working in a context that often seems to have little conception of the value of curatorial and artistic labour. It is clear in her interview that she often finds herself defending the interests of artists in the face of institutions that are negligent or indifferent. However the importance of art-spaces, how they are experienced by artists and audiences alike, is Titus’ main concern around which she builds a responsible and responsive practice.

Hildegard Titus studied photojournalism at the London College of Communication and graduated in 2014. Since graduating she has worked as a photojournalist, filmmaker, visual artist and curator in Windhoek. Much of her work deals with issues of gender, identity, culture and race. Titus has had two solo exhibitions of her photographic work since graduating. She also works as a freelance photo and video journalist for Agence France Presse and The Namibian. For her full biography you can visit her website.

Hildegard Titus

HH: Tell me a little bit about the two exhibitions you curated at the Goethe Institut, has all your curatorial work been freelance?

HT: Yes, it’s all been freelance. Basically, an opportunity came up with the Goethe, they wanted someone to curate two exhibitions in their space. Originally, there were supposed to be three artists, but early on, I told them that there’s no way three artists could create new work in such a short amount of time. They gave me a lot of freedom, which was perfect. I looked for artists who normally wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have a solo exhibition. I looked at catalogues of student work, and on Instagram. Eventually I found Elisia Nghidishange and I was blown away by her work. Similarly, with Ndakola Jekonia’s work; I was really excited to find both of them. I worked with each of them for a couple of months before each exhibition.

When people ask me what a curator is, I usually say, you’re like an artist’s mom. You say, I’m here for you, whatever you want, I’ll do it for you. For these exhibitions I didn’t want to be prescriptive or tell the artists what they had to do. I just wanted to give them the space to do what they wanted and to help facilitate that. I remember one time I went to Elisia’s studio, and she had made these sculptures and they were unpainted and beautiful. When I came back again, she had painted them, and I was devastated. Of course, they were still beautiful but, in that moment, I really had to trust her. I had to realise that I was just there to facilitate what the artist wanted. That it’s not about me, it’s just about making them feel comfortable. Because, you know, they’re the boss.

It was also interesting because it was both of their first solo exhibitions and also the first time I was curating solo shows. We didn’t know who had to make certain decisions. We were trying to find the middle ground and figure out how to negotiate the artist-curator relationship together. I was asking myself, how do I not become a scary curator?

HH: Were those the first two exhibitions you curated?

HT: No. When I finished university, I was asked to co-curate something that was more just texts and images, I didn’t work directly with artists for that. It was for the charity Comic Relief while I was still in the UK. The exhibition was about 30 young people in the Commonwealth doing great shit, it was for the Queen’s Leaders Award. It was the first year they were doing it, so they decided that they needed two people from the Commonwealth to curate it; they chose me and a British girl. They asked us to source photography from wherever the fuck we could find it. We had to choose the people we wanted to include and then we had to look for photographers who had photos of all these people. We also had to put it up. I don’t know if I would necessarily count that as a curatorial experience. It was in London, at Buckingham Palace. We had to show it to the two Princes. It was two months of work and then about 30 minutes of people seeing the exhibition and then after they left, we had to pull everything down.

HH: Your own artistic practice started with a degree in photojournalism and relates mostly to portraiture and documentary. Now it has expanded beyond that with your performances that result in installations.

HT: Yeah. I don’t really know how to define my work at the moment.

HH: Do you think that this work influences the way you work curatorially?

HT: Yeah, I think it does. I try to curate in the way that I’d want to be curated. When I’ve had to curate my own exhibitions, I’ve found it really difficult to organise everything as well as create the artworks. It can be stressful. So I think it’s important for people to have someone who can do that work and let them focus on making the art.

HH: When you’re curating an exhibition, do you feel like your curatorial voice comes through? Or do you try to minimise that as much as possible?

HT: It comes through in some ways. I like to make sure there is text, because I like texts. I also always document with photography and video. I try to follow the conventions of a traditional art exhibition, but I also really try and find out as much as I can from the artist and make sure that they are leading the process.

HH: You’ve worked for the Goethe Institut, the Arts Association and the National Art Gallery. Can you speak a little about your relationship with institutions as a freelance curator? Would you prefer to be a full-time curator at an institution?

HT: I mean, for the money, yes. But I think for the stress, no. I like working on a project and then fucking off after, because it allows you to come in with a new perspective, and you don’t have to deal too much with the politics of the institution. Sometimes, because you’re slightly outside the institution, you can see things that they don’t see. I think there is also more licence and freedom given to freelancers because the institution doesn’t feel like it can control you as much. Maybe they won’t call you again and you are responsible for maintaining the relationship, but the consequences are generally more manageable.

HH: You studied in the UK, worked with the Goethe Institut and are part of the Nje artists’ collective that crosses borders all the time. What do you think about these transnational connections?

HT: For Nje we were all artists and we were all curators at the same time. Obviously, it was curated, but not in the same way as the other projects that I’ve been a part of. Maybe because there were more people’s needs to deal with. I think it’s always interesting going to other spaces and curating. Especially going to the Cape Town Art Fair and being asked to speak on a panel and talk about Namibian art, having to be the authority in that context. So many people are interested in Namibia, partly because everyone’s like, ‘Where the hell is that?’ In that way you get to set the tone. Maybe it’s because we have such a small population, but every time you leave the country, even if it’s as close as Cape Town, you automatically become a kind of ambassador. There’s a lot of pressure in that.

HH: I think you’ve just hit on something that I have never been able to articulate properly before. There’s this horrifying sense of responsibility, but at the same time, it’s an incredible privilege.

HT: So much is based on trust and word of mouth. The Goethe approached me based on one good recommendation. In some ways it’s a good thing because it takes away the glass ceiling. On the other hand, it’s still about access and privilege, studying in the UK and knowing someone who recommended me to the Goethe.

HH: How does your practice function in relation to funding?

HT: So sometimes there’s money and sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes, even when there is money, I realise I do much more than I’m supposed to be doing. They say that when you like your job, you never work, so the money doesn’t matter… but it does! When I do get paid, it’s usually by the institution I’m working with.

HH: You haven’t been applying for funding independently?

HT: No, I want to start doing that. In some of my work I’ve spent my own money to help artists and I’ve made the mistake of not keeping records. I’ve shot myself in the foot by going above and beyond in impossible circumstances, by filling all the gaps and doing the work of five different people. You don’t want to reduce the quality of your work, but the institutions start believing that this is the norm. That they don’t have to pay well because you will get it done anyway. You accepted this much money last time, therefore, that’s all it’s worth. I think this happens all over Namibia in many different sectors. And because we all silently take on multiple jobs, those positions never open up and it is just assumed that we will keep doing it.

HH: What I find scary about that, is that I am absurdly grateful when I do get freelance curatorial work because not too long ago…

HT: I was hungry.

HH: Yes, but also no one even knew what a curator was. So, on the one hand you want to praise the institution for employing a curator and at the same time…

HT: There’s the realisation that it’s not enough. It’s true. It’s scary.

HH: Can you speak a little about your work on The Mourning?

HT: It was so cool. We had planned to be in the Alte Feste, but it was closed so we decided to approach the principal of Windhoek High School to use the tunnel there. But it was full of shit. Literally. So we came with our buckets to clean, but we all chickened out and ended up paying some people to clean it for us. Which is so wrong. If I’m not willing to clean it myself I shouldn’t ask someone else to. But anyway, we did. With all the spaces I’ve worked in it’s been interesting to figure out how to transform them into something completely different.

Even with the more traditional exhibition spaces I’ve had to explain to my ’employer’ that they can’t have a party there while the exhibition is up. I’ve had to come in to move artworks in the middle of an exhibition so that they don’t get damaged by another event that was planned to take place on top of the exhibition. So yeah, it’s not just trying to figure out the practical logistics but also trying to negotiate and educate people on how to respect and handle artworks.

It’s interesting to be able to change a space and how people interact with that space. It happened with the opening of the Owela Festival in the boiler house of the KCAC and again with the tunnel under Windhoek High School. To be able to change a person’s experience of a space is so valuable. Before an artists exhibition, I went to their house to collect some of the artworks and we bumped into their brother, and I asked him if he was coming to the exhibition. He asked if he was allowed to come. I said, ‘Of course you are’. And then he said, ‘okay, I didn’t know that place was for me too’. So on the day of the opening, when they arrived I made sure that I greeted them and walked them around, because I realised that so many people feel as though they are not welcome or not allowed into these spaces. It’s not just about decolonising spaces, it’s also about de-artifying spaces too. Trying to create a space where it really does feel as though art is for everyone. Curating an exhibition allows you to put people into spaces they normally wouldn’t go into. And it’s an interesting relationship. For me anyway.

HH: What was that tunnel initially used for?

HT: I think it was built just for the school kids to avoid the traffic. It was so funny, because I went to the school to ask if I could use the key to access the tunnel and they said that their students use it every day. And I’m like, ‘Have you been down there? You can’t send children down there!’ Honestly, it was horrendous. Someone had made their home there as well, their stuff was there, so we just kept it on the side because I didn’t want to throw away someone’s belongings. I hope they appreciated that we cleaned up a little around them. It was so funny how they thought that their students were still using it. But it was clear that nobody goes there. It was a scary space. We had to come with Imphepho [ritual incense from dried flowers] to sage the place because the energy there was so terrible. During the performance I was sitting there with the projector by myself and I wasn’t scared, but before we’d picked straws to decide who had to go in there. It’s so interesting what you can do with sage. A couple of months later it was used by the Decolonising Space group as part of the Owela Festival for their installation. I really like what they have been doing with public space, curating in riverbeds and all over the place.

HH: Do you think that the roles that you play as a photographer or artist are separate in your mind from the role that you play as a curator?

HT: No, they aren’t separate. Except for the fact that the work is not mine. The curatorial role is sort of like being a mother or a cheerleader.

HH: It’s interesting to me that you choose to use female metaphors for what you do. I wonder if that links to the roots of the curator being a carer?

HT: Yeah, maybe. I mean, I know it’s different for other people. And I’ve seen how violent and scary it can be. Especially when I’ve had my work curated in a certain way. I was asked by this other curator to come into the space to curate a section. I was given some art pieces and told to work with whatever resonated with me. So, I did, and then I went home. I arrived early on the day of the opening to find that everything had been changed. I was told that the other curators didn’t understand what I was trying to say, so they had changed it. I had to ask them to take my name off it, it was no longer my work.

HH: And they hadn’t tried to contact you before the day of the opening?

HT: No. So that’s when I realised some curators have very different ideas about the roles they play. Which is why I try and be a motherly curator, because I like my mom. And I think mothers are important. I want artists to know, ‘I got your back. I will defend you to the death.’ Especially for artists who are at the beginning of their careers. They don’t know how they’re supposed to be treated. I’ve learned that when people disrespect your job, it’s because they don’t know what you do, or they don’t understand how much it takes.

HH: Is there a museum/gallery/curator that inspires you or that you model your work on?

HT: I think it’s more about the individual elements of exhibitions that I’ll take on and think about and bring into my work. I often think that big institutions or galleries are cool, but then there’s always something off. I have a friend in London, she’s the best curator in my mind. She started this thing called Black Blossoms and she curates black femme artists. She was making pop-up exhibitions. I think it’s really important to make your own space. I’ve enjoyed large galleries and museums since I was a child, but there’s always something off. I like spaces that are independent, young, hip, DIY. Those are probably the spaces that I might try and emulate. Obviously, I love all spaces that are for art. I think they’re all cool. But I don’t think that there is a pinnacle out there that really resonates with me.

HH: What about audience?

HT: Audience is everything. We do it for the audience and the artists, who else is there? At the Owela festival we had a performance with a comedian who is hearing impaired, who was performing with Chicken [A well-known comedian]. On the day of the performance we realised that we had forgotten to invite the Hearing-Impaired Association. And I’m just like, Guys, Really? But anyway. Luckily, I had written an article about the skate-park that had been built for the hearing-impaired school, and I knew the principal. So, I called him at the last minute and arranged to pick up some of the kids for the performance. We could fit 14 of the kids in our combi van. I picked them up early so that they could see the exhibition and go to Veronique Mensah’s performance. It was the first time a lot of them had been to a gallery. Even the teacher who came along had never been to a gallery before. They really, really loved it. I had a similar experience with the visually impaired at some exhibitions at the Goethe. Masiyaleti Mbewe put up braille in her exhibition and La Schandré Coetzee’s blind photography project was obviously kitted out to accommodate visually impaired audiences. It’s just so shocking how these kinds of accommodation around accessibility are not on the agenda in a consistent way in any of our institutions or galleries. 

The curatorial boot camp was really good. About 20 people came, some of them are graphic designers, it really wasn’t people who you might traditionally think would want to be a curator. Programmes like that are very important. We have a lot of artists in this country and 10 curators can’t take care of all of them. We are all trying our best, but maybe there are other people who would have a completely different approach and be able to reach different audiences. Audiences that none of us could ever reach because we come from an ‘art background’. At the end of the day we’re still part of the system, because we grew up in it, we have a certain way of thinking, unfortunately. There’s only so much we can do. I am very hopeful that having spaces like the bootcamp, will make our curatorial and our art world richer. On the other hand, we really need to see a very big top down change in the art world, which is still very much about money, who has it and who’s giving it to us. It’s great to train new curators but we need to give them space to do their work as well. On top of that, a lot of our talent, me, you, Gina and Jacques, we leave, because we have to. There are so many structural things that need to change, to make it a conducive space to work in. Even if we wanted to stay, we also want to eat, eating is important. There’s so much hope and optimism for our futures but there’s also a reason why we’re leaving, for our mental health, for our education, for so many reasons.

HH: I guess that’s a big part of what a transnational connection means in our context. It doesn’t always make us more connected, sometimes it just means that people leave and don’t come back.

HT: Yeah. I think one of the main reasons that a lot of us end up leaving is because we’re not valued here. And for us to be valued, people have to understand what we do. I think we need to acknowledge curators more at exhibitions. Even at the openings here [referring to the National Art Gallery of Namibia where the interview was conducted], I get the impression that people don’t know that exhibitions are curated. Most people seem to think that the work just magically appears on the walls. I liked that about curating for the Goethe, they always acknowledged the curator in their press releases and at the openings. But I am optimistic, I want Windhoek to be an art hub on our continent, but a lot of people are going to have to die first. I want to have a multipurpose art space with studios that can accommodate visiting artists and thinkers. A space where everyone can feel welcome. Where no one ever fights, and all the assholes are blocked at the door. I’m being serious. I’m not even joking. I just want space that is for the arts but also for knowledge, because a lot of knowledge creation is happening and needs to be acknowledged.

HH: What you are describing sounds a lot like the Raw Material company in Dakar. They have an amazing curatorial residency programme as well. Unfortunately, one of the difficulties is that we don’t speak French and that is a prerequisite. But it’s something we could work on. Having access to French speaking Africa is definitely worth prioritising, I think. So ideally, you would like to run your own space?

HT: Yeah, I want to house, a cafe, a backpacker’s, I’m a mother, I want to home. I want a space that I would like to go to. That’s the brunt of it. I think it’s hard for me to be optimistic about the arts when it’s so hard to be optimistic about the country as a whole.

HH: Yes, the situation right now with Operation Hornkranz and Kalahari, which has seen state sanctioned military violence against civilians, definitely has to be part of the conversation.

HT: As a country there is so much that needs to be done, but they are choosing to beat people up in the street. I feel like we are at a tipping point.

HH: And we’re not sure where we’re going to land?

HT: I really don’t know. I don’t think Namibia is going to look the same way in 10 years, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

HH: Do you think that we’re living in a moment of freedom that might not last?

HT: Yeah. I hope I’m wrong, I hope I’m just being a paranoid Pisces. Looking at the rest of the world, Trump, Brexit, the far right taking over Europe, all of that looks to me like the right-wing drawing their last desperate breath. Whereas here it doesn’t feel like that at all. I feel like there’s a growing level of apathy in our generation and among our old classmates. It’s like, okay, I’m rich, and I’m fine, I have a nice house, I don’t give a shit about no-one else. We’re going to wake up one day and realise we could have done something, but we didn’t. Those of us who could change things are not changing them, because we think it’s not going to happen to us, and by the time it does, it’ll be too late.

HH: Yeah, I think Namibia is getting more conservative and authoritarian.

HT: Maybe we shouldn’t record this part.