Listening and paying attention – Gina Figueira (2019)

In this interview Gina Figueira speaks about her work as the collections curator at the National Art Gallery. In this role she cared for the artworks housed at the gallery and worked on exhibitions of the collection. Figueira reflects on that labour, discussing the colonial histories embedded in the collections and institutions where she has worked. Grappling with the colonial era, and its continued impact on the country, is a recurrent theme in this interview series. She also notes that her curatorial work has predominantly taken place in the centre of town, which historically is an exclusive and colonial centre. This geographic legacy is also challenged directly by a number of the other interviewees.

Gina Figueira received an honours degree in Fine Art (Sculpture) from the university currently known as Rhodes in South Africa in 2015. After graduating she worked at the National Art Gallery of Namibia in the Public Relations Office and later as the Collections Curator. In 2019 Figueira completed her Master’s degree in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Leeds. Over the last five years, Figueira has worked actively in the Namibian art world, curating exhibitions for the public and private sector. In 2017 she co-founded Start Art Gallery with Helen Harris.

Gina Figueira

HH: Tell me a little bit about ‘Long Story Short’. You were working as the collection’s curator at the National Art Gallery at the time.

GF: The National Art Gallery has a collection of about 400-500 objects and when I started working with it there wasn’t really much in the way of a collections programme. For ‘Long Story Short’ I had started thinking about ways in which objects and histories are shortened to fit somebody’s narrative. In the Namibian context there’s a lot of very sweeping language used to describe the history of the country; German colonialism, the liberation struggle – those are the dominant narratives. What interested me at the time was the idea that there are lots of little caveats of other narratives that have either been repressed or swathed over by these dominant narratives. Looking at the collection from that view point, there were overtly political artworks that were making a statement about how histories have been marginalised and then there were artworks that I thought would work in a similar way but not as obviously.

HH: The exhibition had works from both the National Art Gallery collection and the Arts Association collection. Could you speak a little bit about working across these two collections?

GF: The history is important because there is a split in the two institutions. For all intents and purposes, the Arts Association acted as a kind of unofficial National Art Gallery before independence in 1990, building up a collection and holding exhibitions. After independence things got complicated. The National Art Gallery and the Arts Association occupied the same building for some time and were run by the same people. The National Art Gallery collection is made up mostly of works collected after 2000 while the Arts Association holds a collection that stretches back to the colonial era, alongside more contemporary artworks. A lot of these older works are by big name colonial artists like Fritz Krampe, and are very valuable, but they also hold the weight of that colonial history. This is very different from the National Art Gallery collection, which also holds some very valuable works, but it is far more contemporary and so has a very different character.

HH: It’s not as overwhelmed by the colonial heritage?

GF: Yes, and unfortunately the art market in Southern Africa is in some ways still very colonial; it recognises the older works of white colonial era artists as incredibly valuable, and sought after at auction. This makes the Arts Association collection more valuable in monetary terms than the National Art Gallery collection. However, it is also debatable whether or not the National Art Gallery would even want to hold some of the older colonial pieces in the first place, because they are largely steeped in racist rhetoric.

So yes, the two collections have very different characters and this made it useful to draw on them both for the exhibition. It made for quite obvious but also useful spaces of juxtaposition from which to think critically about how our histories are told and narratives cut short. For example, we used two works by Krampe, and just their titles; ‘Ovahimba Portrait’ and ‘Sitting Bushman Woman’ are a good indication of how the artist framed his practice in relation to his subjects. The National Art Gallery collection had also recently accepted a donation of works by Erich Mayer. Mayer was another colonial era artist whose descendants donated a large portfolio of his works, some landscapes but also images of people. The Arts Association collection also holds many more John Muafangejo prints than the National Art Gallery collection, which we borrowed for the exhibition.

HH: These artworks are obviously very much a part of art history and the social history of Namibia and there is something very difficult about putting them all together. Works by artists like Papa Shikongeni and John Muafangejo resist the narratives that Fritz Krampe and Erich Meyer present. Perhaps you could talk about how you curate criticism into an exhibition?

GF: I think it’s a big fallacy of the 19th century, that is still at the heart of many exhibitions, that there can be a neutral display of the facts. That for me is very problematic, there is no such neutral stance. It’s a format that works on a specific understanding of the relationship between the viewer and the curator. In that version of things, the curator is a noble white man who is not visible but somehow always present. I thought that it was very important to examine these two collections together. Looking at the collections it is really evident that there is an assemblage of the different sides of the story of Namibia represented though these objects.

It is often tricky to think about showing works that are problematic without implying an endorsement of the works. A good example are the Krampes that we borrowed from the Arts Association collection. Would the exhibition have carried a critical tone without showing them? Considering how often colonial and racist histories are ignored and covered up, I felt it important to point to an object which I think shows the subtle but pertinent ways the discourse and ideologies that came with colonialism are evident. We still see photography today that leaves its subjects nameless, showing works with titles such as ‘Himba portrait’. Where does that standard practice come from? What is its history and how does it play out still today? We are at a time where we need to be acknowledging what the stories of these objects are, in order to reflect and critically engage with them. It is important that we are taking a stance on them. I made sure that the text accompanying the Krampes was overtly critical in a way that would not leave much room for nonchalant enjoyment of the artist’s hand. Then again, not everyone reads the text, so the possibility that this criticism was lost on some viewers is there.

HH: A lot of that questioning seems to have come out in the audience participation, which took the form of clipboards and pens dotted throughout the rooms.

GF: I tried to make the exhibition interactive in the sense that the audiences could add to it. The clipboards contained some straight-forward and some quite opaque questions relating to the artworks that would draw a response. It was an opportunity for people to add their narrative to the story. Of course, there were some random doodles but also some interesting responses and feedback. For a lot of people, the action of writing in the gallery was strange in relation to a more passive stance that they were used to. At the end of the exhibition we filed the responses away and they became part of the archive of information that the gallery holds about these artworks. It would be interesting to make the responses accessible to the public for continued reflection. I really like the idea of continued reflection, getting the objects out of storage and building on the responses to them over time. The logistics of this kind of project are difficult but archives and collections need to be continually reflected on, in order to become more than just relics of a very different intellectual era and a very racist intellectual era. So that was the intervention I wanted to get across in the exhibition, that we were critically looking at the collections.

HH: This all makes me think about the role of an audience in relation to a public collection. The National Art Gallery collection is public property and so figuring out what the public’s relationship to that property is, becomes important.

GF: Yes exactly, collections are so often stored and preserved away from people, but they are supposed to be accessible. The National Art Gallery’s ‘about’ section on its website says that it is for the Namibian people. In terms of the audience there are so many different types of people walking through the door, with such different levels of knowledge about Namibian history. Tourists particularly might not know the intricacies of the history and politics that brought us to where we are today. So, there ended up being a large amount of text in the exhibition to try and mediate this. For example, Papa’s work makes direct reference to Red Flag Day [Otjiserandu Day is an annual day of remembrance for deceased Herero chieftains and has been a long-standing symbol of colonial resistance]. There was a need to explain this kind of thing for a tourist audience and not only assume a knowledgeable Namibian audience. On the other hand, I think the Namibian audience is often taken to be the secondary audience, with far too much work done to mediate for tourists.

School-goers are also difficult because for children these narratives can be very difficult to convey, particularly around state violence and repression. There are always school groups coming in and it is not immediately clear where an exhibition like this might fit in with the curriculum. I did a tour with a high school group and that was really interesting. I introduced the exhibition by talking about how people might feel like they have not been listened to or heard. In this way I was bringing it back to the everyday ways in which people might think about a long story cut short.

HH: ‘Long Story Short’ also contained a donation from IoDeposito in Italy. These transnational connections are everywhere in the arts. How do you think about your connection with the imagined community of a global artworld?

GF: Working at the National Art Gallery you are in the very privileged position of being the first port of call for all international interest. We received the offer of the donation as a kind of cold-call. It was interesting because the work was based on creating soundscapes that were meant to talk to the experience of Italian soldiers in WW2. There is no obvious direct connection to Namibia but the broader project of the artwork spoke to ideas about experience, and collecting lesser known narratives of people in war. It made for an interesting link. Being a sound piece, it was quite different from the other works on display.

It was different when I stopped working at the National Art Gallery because I was no longer so immediately connected to a wider world. Namibia is off the beaten track in people’s minds, being part of the global south.

HH: I find it very difficult to talk about this as well. Wanting to discuss it in a way that does not remarginalize what it is that we do in the minds of people who might be reading this conversation. It is an incredibly fine point that needs to be made about our positionality and trying to define that positionality without redefining the centre as elsewhere.

GF: Exactly, it’s really difficult to talk about it in a way that makes it sound like we are not an underperforming country that can’t compete or meet any international people.

HH: What I think is very interesting about this dynamic is that while we were working at the National Art Gallery and making StArt Art Gallery a lot of people came from abroad to interview us. So, there is a clear interest, but that interest was predominantly from Germany and focussed on that colonial past.

GF: Yes, the biggest movement of ideas and people in the arts is definitely between Namibia and Germany. As everyone is trying to figure out how to envisage a world after colonialism. There is still a lot of connection through the Goethe Institut and tourism, but also residencies and projects. It is difficult to try and figure out where you stand in relation to the rest of the world in this profession. There is a major gap in terms of the finances and resources available in different countries. There is definitely a sense that we have to make do with what we have.

HH: A lot of what is possible in the arts comes down to funding. Maybe you could talk a little about this?

GF: We had such a limited budget at the National Art Gallery, but being in the UK I realise that all sate funded institutions seem to believe that they do not have a big enough budget. And of course, that might always be true. Big art fairs and commercially driven galleries operate differently in relation to money but are also tied to it in other compromising ways. Moving into a commercial arena with StArt Art Gallery meant that we were constantly compromising and negotiating our vision in order to be economically sustainable or find extra funding. These kinds of grants or partnerships are not hugely uncommon, and the nature of funding is such that the institutions that give it have their own visions which seldom organically align with your own.

HH: Could you talk a little bit about the different spaces you’ve curated exhibitions in?

GF: The National Art Gallery was the first space I worked where I was conceiving curatorial projects on my own. There was a whole collection of objects to look at and reflect on. The National Art Gallery had a contemporary exhibitions programme as well so it was interesting to work on the collection at the same time as seeing the other exhibitions.

HH: Collecting from those other exhibitions was a big part of your job as well?

GF: Yes, so that was interesting, to be in an existing framework that in some ways I could remake and adjust but also simply work within. I was very collections focussed. Then when we started StArt Art Gallery there was no collection and I worked directly with artists. Because there was such a nice community developed through working at the National Art Gallery, it wasn’t a huge jump but there was definitely a shift in my way of thinking. I had gotten to know the National Art Gallery collection so well, thinking about its history and why certain things had been collected, there was a shift that had to happen in my mind.

StArt was a completely independent thing that we made on our own with our own independent focus and practice. We could work less democratically and more professionally, based purely on a response to the artists and artworks. With StArt we had complete control over our calendar and could take on the projects we really cared about. This also allowed us time to curate a few shows in other spaces like the Goethe Institut and one back at the National Art Gallery. This was another shift in thinking. In those cases, we were independent curators who were working with institutions that had their own frameworks, their own visions. Moving back into those spaces as independent actors also provided another lens through which to think about what we wanted to do with StArt.

HH: Thinking about it now, all the places in which you have curated somehow pull us back to colonial histories. But also, these spaces get used in very contemporary ways that don’t necessarily want those histories to be at the forefront of every conversation.

GF: The actual physical spaces? Yes, the infrastructure at the National Art Gallery, which was an Apartheid era building that for a long time was only for white people.

HH: Yes, and then moving into the private sector and renting a space from an old German family who had owned the property for generations. The buildings there all dated back to the German colonial era.

GF: Yes, and then curating for the Goethe Insitut which represents some of Germany’s current, less negative, presence in the country today. That’s the thing. People say that colonialism ended a long time ago but the repercussions are so deep that it really is everywhere you look in Windhoek. The disparity of wealth and its distribution means that we only really curated on one side of town, which is also not coincidental. The available spaces are not as easy to find in Katutura. That being said, people are doing incredible work beyond the centre of town.

HH: Perhaps you could talk a little bit about your role as a curator? Is there a gallery or curator that you would like to model your work on?

GF: Curators have moved quite far from the keepers of objects that they once were. In my experience, the time that I find that I most feel like I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, is when I am talking to artists, seeing work, talking about ideas. There is something very nice about listening and paying attention. If I try to distil it to something essential that I want to keep my focus on, it is that people make things and it takes a lot of effort. This isn’t meant to sound patronising at all. Being a curator means that you can be part of the very important conversations that go into these processes, and the shared musing on why it is that things get made and what they might mean.

In terms of role models, whenever I walk into galleries or museums, especially with the work I have been doing in my Masters, I am constantly looking at the space very critically. This can often be a bit negative, in that I seem to look first at what doesn’t work in my opinion. But then I suppose I use that to think about how it might be better, and then how that might translate to my own practice.

HH: But maybe it shouldn’t be any surprise really that institutions, especially those operating on a large scale might lose something along the way? They might have gained something in the excessive size of their collections but they could very easily lose their ability to do what you were talking about before, on a very human level quite generously communicate.

GF: Yes, I think that is why I find it difficult. There are some very interesting examples of co-curating happening. There are some museum spaces that are taking this on particularly when it comes to representing people’s histories. One of the things about the world of curation that I’m very aware of is how white and privileged it is, and I fall into that category too. In moving forward, it is important to take that awareness with me. My optimistic view of the future would be one where I was in a position that wasn’t dictated by an institution outside of my making. I would want to be in a position where I am able to maintain an independence that wouldn’t curtail my ability to connect. I would like to work on things that mean something to me and to people who deserve a lot of time and attention.