Decolonising space – Natache Iilonga (2019)

Natache Iilonga’s work with the Decolonising Space group first emerged in public places in 2018. While the arts in Namibia are stifled by a persistent lack of resources, giving the impression that nothing ever changes, there is continuous activity just out of sight of those who are not immediately present to witness it. The Decolonising Space group is an example of this kind of activity. Highly critical and operating across the boundaries of architecture and public art, their work engages with the local while consciously desiring to add to the growing global discourse that reflects on the praxis of decolonisation. Iilonga describes plans to make accessible documentation of the projects that they have undertaken so far, hopefully with the result of increasing the audience for their work. Many of the interviewees in this series discuss the barriers to creating meaningful or public documentation of their work. However, the importance of it is made clear in the reiterated desire to create texts, catalogues and archives.

Natache Iilonga graduated with a Masters of Technology in Architectural Technology (Professional), in 2017, from the Graduate School of Architecture University of Johannesburg in South Africa. She also holds a Bachelors in Architectural Studies from the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. Iilonga is currently an Architect-in-Training at Nina Maritz Architects. Iilonga is an active member of the ‘Decolonising Space’ group; co-organising events and public interventions with a focus on critical ideas around access to land, socio-spatial decolonisation, gender and identity.

Natache Iilonga

HH: For the other interviews in this series I started by asking people to tell me about a specific project in relation to their curatorial practice. But you don’t really think of yourself as a curator?

NI: I think when you say the word curator the first thing that jumps to mind is the museum person, you know, the white box. Even though just literally, like, a few minutes ago, I was busy curating my own Instagram. So I think that’s why I had a mini-panic because I was like, what? I don’t have a museum. Which is silly. But that is honestly where my mind went to first. But if you are talking in terms of a person who facilitates something, or someone who acts as a catalyst for public engagement? Then I would say, yes.

HH: So, if we think of your work in those terms, then perhaps you could talk about the two groups you are part of?

NI: Well, technically, it’s one group. It’s the Decolonising Space group. Members of the group get together to help facilitate or put together projects like the Land Pavilion, or critical debates and discussions around specific socio-spatial topics. We branch out like that. I like to say we, but honestly, we’re not that formal. It’s really just a big WhatsApp group that argues, debates and is cognisant of the state of our lives currently.

HH: And you don’t define yourselves as a collective?

NI: What is a collective?

HH: I suppose the label ‘collective’ is part of the jargon of the artworld, and since your background is in architecture it might not be how you self-define. But when you say that you are a group of people who haven’t quite defined themselves yet, I immediately think, that that sounds a bit like a collective.

NI: Interesting. Yeah.

HH: And how many of you make up the group?

NI: On the group? I’m not sure how many, more than 10, but less than 30. Let me double check. People come and go… Okay so there are 26 of us, for now.

HH: Okay. Cool. So that WhatsApp group is the space that you work in and start conceptualising things in, and from there different people come together to organise projects?

NI: Yeah. The group consists of people with quite varied backgrounds. A lot of us are architects, and architecture students, town planning students from NUST, some lecturers, artists, some architects that are researchers, researchers from UNAM and NUST, activists, cross-border researchers and creatives and law graduates. Then there’s Jacques, he’s critically radical. Then there are also the arts students from the College of the Arts and JMAC as well. So, it’s really just a mixed crew. Which is quite nice, because when it comes to debating around social issues, it’s good to see the different angles that people come from. Oh, we also have people from NHAG, you know, the Namibia Housing Action Group who work with the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia on cases of informality and land ownership.

HH: That’s a great acronym.

NI: NHAG? Ya, I love it.

HH: And the projects that you’ve done have been the Land Pavilion and working with the Owela festival? Has there been anything else?

NI: No, the group only really started last year in February or March. The Land Pavilion happened about halfway through last year. It started with the architecture students, wanting to explore the ‘art’ side of architecture or space, rather. Architecture loves to boast that it is a blend of engineering and art, but in reality it seems that most architects don’t really care about art. So, we had an informal session with some of the students and decided that we would try and engage with fellow artists and see what we could do with Windhoek’s blank public space. We then approached funders and creative professionals like Turipamwe Design and Bold Creations, and arts institutions for assistance and guidance. That’s where the Land Pavilion started. We then came up with five ambitious pavilions. Namely; Public Projections, Paper Pavilion, The Great Divide, Urban Infill, Afro-futurism. The projects have run into this year now too albeit with a change of plans.

HH: So those five ambitious pavilions, did they happen?

NI: Half of them happened. Two happened last year, or you could say one and a half, because the second one was controversial, it was the one in Soweto Market [a commercial centre located in Katutura] and the police and City of Windhoek shut us down on the second day. One of the reasons given was that we had written the word ‘Land’ on the Paper Pavilion structure and that constituted ‘advertising’, which according to the police was illegal, because we didn’t have an advertising licence.

HH: That sounds like a bit of a technicality.

NI: Yes, but since there is no policy for art in public space, we had ended up trying to take the route of renting the space. Since we were students, though, a City of Windhoek representative had said we didn’t have to pay for rent; but it turned out that they hadn’t informed the police department either.

HH: Who were you liaising with?

NI: The City of Windhoek.

HH: So, you had gone through the official channels? And despite that you were asked to leave. Did you get the impression that the police were acting on their own volition?

NI: Well we had submitted our proposals well in advance for the project to take place in October/November. They just didn’t seem to care, especially the higher ups, no one got back to us apart from the team at customer care who advised us where they could. The higher departments sent us from person to person to person to person. So we ended up using the loophole of renting the public space. We did inform them obviously, because you still must go to them to get permission. But they didn’t update the police department on that particular installation. Even though the police department were in possession of our overall initial proposal.

HH: And the police thought you were squatting?

NI: Yeah. What brought the police to the site was that somebody called in, saying that people were building a shack at Soweto Market. That’s why they showed up and things escalated. So I think it would have all gone smoothly if that one person hadn’t called in, assuming it was a shack. But it wasn’t, it was a Paper Pavilion. The structure was built out of timber, but the intention was to suspend, thousands of papers from the rafters and purlins. When the police came, they said they hadn’t been notified about the intervention happening and then the people who had given us permission at City of Windhoek seemed to panic, or something, and next thing we know, after much back and forth communication between us, City of Windhoek and the Police, we had to take it down by 4 pm. So, we modified it and did it again this year, but this time, we used the Ministry of Justice pavement space in front of their building in town.

HH: That’s such a pity. So you were basically forced out of Katutura.

NI: Yeah, basically. But it’s also interesting because through this process we learned that all public areas are administered or owned by the City of Windhoek, unless it’s privately owned. Which means that no matter what art you are doing, you still have to go through them. And the CEO has to sign it off, but if he doesn’t care for the project, it’s not going to get signed off, right? And the interesting thing about the Ministry of Justice is that they own the pavement space in front of their building. And they are very progressive and open to students using the space and doing things with it. So that’s where we did our first Pavilion last year. We projected on the Ministry of Justice building; we had a week long screening. I was so happy that they were so kind about this because we wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. City of Windhoek were just not going to let us access the public spaces unless we were some big organisation with a budget.

HH: People talk endlessly about there not being enough public art in Namibia. In Windhoek specifically, there are just very clear barriers in place that prevent projects like this from happening.

NI: The public policy on arts has been in the works for years now, you know, and even the person that’s supposed deal with these things at City of Windhoek is incredibly unhelpful. I honestly don’t know why she’s employed if she holds no power on matters of art and space which concern her department. It’s a bottleneck.

HH: You don’t get the feeling that she’s got 500 other things to do, and no one cares about the arts?

NI: Well she is the cultural officer. So it’s literally her job to care about everything related to arts or creative culture. Spatial creative interventions by youths are rare in this country yet such opportunities get left to die when they present themselves. Although, it is fair to say that there is only so much she can do if the higher ups don’t care either.

HH: So I suppose she probably gives permission for the Wika Parade to close roads and go through the centre of town every year?

NI: The one where they throw sweets at children and adults? I would think so. Not too sure. I guess if it’s an event that big and the police are informed and City of Windhoek likes it, it’s fine. But an arts installation that occupies space for a small amount of time, falls in between blurred lines of legal and illegal, and it was heart-breaking, because she basically said ‘guys there’s nothing I can do about this, I can’t help’. Since there’s no arts policy there’s nothing she can reference in relation to this kind of project.

HH: And the third Pavilion?

NI: It’s not on social media yet, we still need to sort that out. The third Pavilion was meant to be The Great Divide, a series of sculptures that represented Namibian people that would essentially move through the city occupying public space at different sites each day. But then suddenly, an opportunity came up, in collaboration with the Shack Dwellers Federation, who had access to public space in Gobabis. We were advocating for the use of public space in interesting and progressive ways but were constantly coming across all these blockages and barriers in Windhoek, so we decided to take the opportunity to spread out to the rest of the country.

We took it to Gobabis to the Freedom Square settlement in Epako. And luckily the councillors there are very open-minded as well. They seemed to genuinely want to enrich their communities. There we built a community meeting structure, and a playground that runs around that structure, for the Freedom Square community to use. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep going back and continue working on the remaining ideas with that neighbourhood.

Yeah, so I think the Land Pavilion started in one place and then transformed into something quite impactful. We were scared because we had put ourselves out there and there was a lot of public expectation. But we learned quite quickly to adapt to the situation at hand while still trying to stay true to your original concepts.

Then for the Owela festival this year it was either Jacques or Nelago who approached us. The arts community had started seeing us as radical installation artists, which is weird, because at the time there were very few actual artists in the group. But we ended up doing ‘The Production of Gendered Space[s]: City Tour’ for the Owela festival, exploring gendered public, invisible and in-between spaces within Windhoek. So again, taking architectural spatial exploration and combining it with an attempt at artistic expression, informed by critical socio-spatial observation and research. Windhoek was designed by men. Windhoek and its hot springs were fought over by men. 99% of our street names are male.

HH: You know I actually can’t think of a single female street name off the top of my head.

NI: That’s the thing. So, part of the tour was driving our audience between sites, from one female street to another one, no matter how far apart the street names are because the point was to make the spatiality of gender in our city obvious.

HH: Which streets were they?

NI: Florence Nightingale street in Windhoek West and Kakurukadhi Mungunda street in G-Block area, Katutura. So, the first one is in the city centre and the second one is in Tura.

HH: You were working between spaces?

NI: Yeah, so at those two streets, I had to make the audience believe I was in multiple places at the same time. I stood draped in red cloth, representing the silent spilt female blood. The tour concept started around the Windhoek High School tunnel area because that was the site of the concentration camp next to the Alte Feste where women and children were kept by colonialists as slaves. The blood of those Herero and Damara/Nama women was shed. Forced slave labour from these concentration camps was used to build our city. So we were looking at the woman’s body in space, in the city, her spatial contribution, her lack of acknowledgement and representation; and trying to find her in something as simple as street names.

HH: Apparently, there’s a section of town where all the street names were named after the wives of town planners. But even then, it’s just first names so they aren’t identifiable.

NI: And, this is despite the fact that we have so many successful and influential women in our history and current times. The entire thing was a weird experience, I was standing on the streets, draped in red, tying red cloth around the street names. The reactions of people around me were interesting to watch. People didn’t wake up that day expecting to see a black woman with an Afro, dressed so dramatically. It freaked people out, thinking I was some sort of African witch-doctory sorcery mad woman. The police on the Katutura site thought I was crazy. They were like, ‘what are you doing, are you okay?’ and at another point a taxi driver called me the devil.

Then we took the exhibition to the riverbed in Eros. Again, that’s a perceived male space in the city, where women don’t go, because of the danger of sexual assault. Gendered dominance, it automatically becomes an exclusively male space. It’s not even part of the built design of the city but it connects the city centre to the informal areas invisibly. Men walk that riverbed from Katutura to the wealthier areas of Eros and Ludwigsdorf where they are employed as gardeners, construction workers or even dog walkers. The audience was made to cross the riverbed amidst an audio-visual storytelling about gender. That was the third and last place I appeared.

So, after we took the exhibition there, we then moved it to Katutura, Damara Lokasie, where we did a neighbourhood engagement exercise. There is this little piece of land there that has these concrete slabs on it. Normally, it’s occupied by young boys playing soccer. The question there was how do you begin to produce a shared gender safe space? We repainted the graffitied walls. We set up an outdoor movie theatre to watch Namibian films. We put up lights because the perception of darkness is that it puts women in danger. But with the lights on, suddenly women and girls didn’t mind being out till a bit late. Although weirdly the audience consisted of more small children than young teenagers and adults. Some accompanied by their mothers. Sadly, a rare sight in that area.

Yeah, those are the two bigger socially engaged projects that we’ve done so far. But I feel like we just kind of go with the flow at this point. People seem to think of us as those people that do arts installations. So you just randomly get called like, ‘hey, do you guys want to contribute to this? Or, you know, come help us out here?’

HH: It’s great when good work is recognised.

NI: Yeah, no, it is. But it’s strange because at the end of the day, I’m an architect-in-training, but I’m recognised as an artist. The artistic community recognises my efforts more than my own industry ever will.

HH: How does it all work in relation to funding? Do you get funding? Or are you mostly self-funded?

NI: Before the Land Pavilion we would self-fund movie nights or debate sessions and get together at Co-Work or somebody’s house. But for the Land Pavilion we actively sourced funding and wrote proposals. We wrote down a list of people that we thought might have money to fund creative initiatives, including the banks and Pupkewitz. We ended up getting funding from a sponsor who are coincidentally interested in land related matters. [The sponsor prefers not to be named]

HH: That’s interesting. It’s also one of the ways in which the arts in Namibia is very closely related to that whole landscape of development. Which is also a colonial space in some ways.

NI: Indeed. They ended up funding the three pavilions and now we are busy working on a presentation to give back to them and to the public. So we’ve also had to, like, you know, produce reports because protocol needs to be observed. So we’ve had some support from NAHG and the Shack Dwellers Federation and our sponsors. Everyone seems pretty happy with it and it looks like we will continue to get funding for future works.

HH: How are you archiving your practice and what are the forms that that archiving takes?

NI: There are two areas of archiving that we do. The Decolonising Space group uses Google Drive. So it’s archiving in the sense that people share information on the group; papers, articles, books, photos, things like that. I try my best to take all that and organise it into a kind of decolonial library. On the Land Pavilion side and Owela, we’ve got videos and photographs. The idea is to put together a booklet, like a comic booklet type thing. We’re trying to explore how you actually document stuff like this accessibly. Not in the sense of a traditional book with references etc. But how do you start to decolonise that structure as well? And present this type of work in such a way that the everyday Namibian can also access it?

HH: It’s so difficult to wrap your head around what genuine access might look like.

NI: Yeah. Because, with the Land Pavilion, the overall theme was around access, access to land and space. And then also how the public accesses the information that we gathered, presented, exhibited, or showed. Publication, documenting, is still something that we’re trying to figure out. We’re still having meetings around that. But it is something that we will do before the end of this year.

HH: It sounds like things are moving really fast. For a group that hasn’t really defined itself, you’ve got a lot of momentum. What does your funding cover?

NI: It’s largely materials, equipment, artisan/creative professional assistance, transport and accommodation. No one gets paid for their work or time.

HH: At the moment there seems to be a global engagement in ideas around decolonisation. How do you think about your work in relation to the wider world?

NI: So to take you back to the beginning, the group started with Martin Namupala and me. We are critically progressive-minded people and we were having discussions and arguments and we were like; surely there are other people who think like this? And that’s how the group started; we just kind of dragged people onto it. But on a larger scale, the intention was also to connect to the global and the greater discussion and the diaspora around it, and try to contribute Namibia’s perspective to the conversation. It is incredibly frustrating that Namibia is forever skipped out of these important discussions. There is barely any reference point for what happens in Namibia in the Global conversation. What are Namibia’s young people saying? The bigger picture with the group’s intention is to start contributing and having a voice in the global context. The dialogue takes its shape from its contributors and we need to start contributing.

I think our artists do interesting, provocatively radical stuff, but there is also a lot of social fear that if they speak too loudly there might be repercussions, they might be arrested, there are so many suggestive barriers and invisible controls here. So at the end of the day, we never contribute to the bigger dialogue.

We do have connections to people in or from other countries, South Africa, Ghana, Mauritius, Denmark, but it’s happening slowly and organically as different members of the group drag their connections in. The group grows itself. And now, in fact, later this week, we might be meeting this lovely lady from Cape Town/Mauritius, who is interested in the stuff that we are doing as well. Which is a pleasant surprise.

We also have a researcher from Denmark doing his PhD research in Namibia this year. He’s an anthropologist, and he’s been following us around. So, he’s kind of documenting us and our praxis. Then at the same time, he gives us reflections and interpretations of our characters and the way we organise ourselves. Which is a great way of reflecting on what we do, although it’s a bizarre experience. We enjoy having him around and he is valuable. We can correct him where maybe we feel he’s not understanding a point or whatever. If I’m not mistaken, his research focus is actually on youth and politics in Namibia and then he fell into the Decolonising Space WhatsApp group. I’m really excited about the prospect of someone writing about us, youth politics and space and decoloniality in the Namibian context.

HH: So you’ve got your resident researcher? That’s wonderful. Architecture seems to be the starting point for everything you do, how do you think that that relates to your work with public art interventions?

NI: I think I’m trying to decolonise my own architectural mind around possession of spaces. Going away from home, studying and coming back, has afforded me a different lens, a very critical lens on my space and city, how things work and how people move, spatial politics, identity and gender. For all these spatial questions that I had and still have, decolonising just made sense. It’s like starting to peel away and dissect something, looking for an essence or the simplest form of understanding a thing but with intentional critical reasoning. Mostly it’s like taking the facade of normality away from our environment. I suppose that’s what I’m trying to do.

The other part is also me being angry with my profession in general. I feel like architecture in Namibia is in a very comfortable little bubble. It’s a profession for the elites. At the Graduate School of Architecture in Johannesburg, where I did my Masters, the teaching was all about ‘how do you create an African architect?’ It’s somebody who is born and bred African, lives in an African city or context, grew up in this space and is an architect for or of that space of contextual richness and complexities. What does that mean? What does it mean as an architect to acknowledge the complexities and dynamics of space? What language will you use? Is the answer or proposal always a building?

HH: You can be all those things, but still be completely indoctrinated in the theory of another context.

NI: Exactly. That was the issue. I was very angry with typical architecture schools, where they just teach you to be a typical Western-thinking architect and see only what’s wrong with everything else. Thank goodness for the Graduate School of Architecture. When I came home, I realised that Namibia doesn’t comply with any form of spatial theory, although it is vaguely compliant with the ideal city notion.

HH: Do you mean in terms of the models that are set out to suggest how we should be building or do you mean in terms of the architecture that already exists?

NI: Both, people design for Windhoek as if they are in New York. Even though no one in Windhoek lives or earns money like a New Yorker. Why aren’t architects aspiring to do contextually relevant work? The answer is simple, they are a business, they need money. Such is the capitalist system we have adapted or adopted.

HH: They are linked to capital, and capital believes that it is in New York, no matter where it is in the world?

NI: Exactly that. Even our own spatial relationships with our homes and our traditional homesteads, where are they in our architectural thinking? Many people travel from the north and end up in a shack in Windhoek. And there’s a possibility that if we were thinking more and researching more about our contextual structures be it social or architectural, we could find a breakthrough of understanding there!

HH: What would you like to see happening next in your practice?

NI: In terms of the Decolonising Space group, it’s really organic, so similar to how the Owela festival came to us and now this possibility of us doing something in Dordabis or any other town, similar to the project in Gobabis, It’s very fluid, it’s very organic, things just happen, day to day, step by step. We would like to grow into a powerhouse, becoming influential, especially in terms of critical information. Hopefully, at some point, we can put a website together that can be a meaningful source of information.

HH: It would be incredible if there was a space that could be much less transitory than the newspapers, but somehow have the same distribution and accessibility.

NI: Yeah, there’s the newspapers, the University Press, the radio and social media, especially Twitter, and Facebook. And that’s what people read and how they access information. So, we’d like to contribute. I feel like the youth of the country in general are starting to be a bit more progressive in their thinking, and more radical. Not radical in the violent sense. But really beginning to question the spaces they are in.

HH: We have this incredible legacy of struggle and resistance that we’ve inherited from the previous generations. Now of course that it’s our turn we’re told that we aren’t respectful enough. But that radical thinking also comes from them.

NI: Peace and Stability is a very strong concept in this country. That’s why when you say the word radical, everybody assumes you mean violence. But it’s not the case. I’m a radical person, but I’m not out here shooting anybody. Also, I think many words like respect, have more diverse meanings now, but I acknowledge that they are often used as barriers in dialogues between the youth and the elders still holding power. If we can create spaces where the youth can be more unapologetically vocal then maybe, we can start being influential in terms of governance or policy making or even physically. At the same time becoming more connected with the rest of Africa and the diaspora as well. Ideally, I hope some kind of solidarity comes out of it. If we can start being seen and understood, we can literally change people’s lives and the situations in which they live.