Something needed to change – Elize van Huyssteen (2019)

Much of this interview with Elize van Huyssteen reflects on the colonial history that is wrapped up in the collection that she managed for the Namibian Arts Association. Describing her role as that of an educator, van Huyssteen focused on challenging this history by producing exhibitions from the collection as well as with contemporary artists. Working with a collection and with contemporary artists, van Huyssteen contends with and melds two very different registers, one that sits in the past and another that looks to the future.

Elize van Huyssteen was born in South Africa, and now lives and works in Windhoek. Van Huyssteen holds an honours degree in Library Studies from the University of North West in South Africa. She was the curator at the Namibian Arts Association from 2007 – 2019. In that role Van Huyssteen was responsible for the keeping of a large collection comprising more than 1400 artworks as well as all research and grant proposal writing. She also ran the projects and programmes of the organization. Van Huyssteen is currently studying towards a Bachelor of Arts in Art History at the University of South Africa, Pretoria.

Elize van Huyssteen

HH: Would you like to speak a little bit about the 2018 Muafangejo Season? It was quite a big project?

EvH: Yes, I still yearn back to the days when we could make exhibition catalogues and we had a longer time to do research, but these days, it’s not the same. Last year was particularly difficult because I was mostly alone. I had Muafangejo Season on my annual programme but there was just no time to prepare for it. Where we might have had three months in the past to prepare, I literally had one month and I found it particularly difficult, I felt very lonely.

HH: Because you used to organise it with Jacques, and he had left the John Muafangejo Art Centre?

EvH: Yes. And you guys at National Art Gallery, Ndeenda had also left to study in Cape Town. I just thought, it is Muafangejo’s birthday, someone needs to celebrate, let me do it. So I ventured out on my own, trying to reinterpret what the Season of Muafangejo could mean for me, because I don’t come from a performance art background or have an intellectual approach. I have a more hands-on practical approach. I started to approach filmmakers, dancers, performance artist, people from other fields who I wouldn’t normally approach along with visual artists. I found it extremely difficult. I got very few responses. I could sense that there was some form of mistrust. So I hunted every individual down and made meetings with them here. In the meetings I would literally go back to the history, take out the books and discuss the details of Muafangejo’s life. The idea was to get new perspectives on his work, a female perspective, a decolonial perspective, etc. We look up to Muafangejo today and we honour him, but he was also colonised.

HH: He lived under South African colonial rule?

EvH: Yes, exactly. But since I didn’t have Jacques to refer to, to ask him how I should go about it, I focussed on giving the information to the artist and letting them respond to it. Julia Hango was particularly interesting to me. She looked at one artwork by Muafangejo, about when his mother passed away. At the time because of Apartheid and border control he was not allowed to go to her or to go to the funeral. Julia Hango delved into the emotions and how that must have felt for him, which I thought was very beautiful, a fresh and much softer approach. At the same time though, she also looked deeply into his mother’s life, at her role as a mother, how she supported and inspired him. On the other hand she also looked at the other side of being a female, being seen as a slut, as a whore as, the negative in our society by this very patriarchal system that Muafangejo was portraying and was born into and that we still have all around us. So she went out there to directly attack the patriarchy in the culture. And I thought, better her than me. But it was wonderful. I really liked it. I could see the shock waves that went through people who were there.

HH: There was quite a strong reaction to her work?

EvH: She created a performance piece around freeing the female body, she took off all her clothes, and she went through a ritual where she used blood, and ritualistic elements and symbols that we usually connect to culture and spirituality. She brought those elements in, in order to shock them. If she had been a man then perhaps, they would have viewed it differently. She was not ashamed, and she showed her body with full confidence to the audience. Some people who view the culture and the tradition as sacred, saw her performance as sacrilege. It was the same for the Ministry. The next day, we received a phone call from the Ministry of Education, Art & Culture saying that it was inappropriate.

HH: I suppose those are the obvious people to react, you know, the older male artists, the patriarchal figures, the Ministry of Culture. I guess it was sort of inevitable that there would be that reaction. Did you know that when you were curating it?

EvH: No, I didn’t. I had some of her images printed for the exhibition, they were quite explicit but seemed harmless to me. She didn’t tell me that she wanted to do a performance, so I wasn’t really prepared. Shortly before the opening, she said she was coming and that she would like to do a performance piece. I thought it would be wonderful to have a live performance on the night of the opening. I had actually asked other performers if they could do something for the opening night, and none of them were available.

HH: Do you mind talking about how you responded to the criticism? Did they hold the Namibian Arts Association accountable for Julia’s performance?

EvH: In the panel discussions that we had the next week, the reaction came out because representatives from the JMAC board were there and they were funders, so they were very upset.

HH: JMAC also funded it?

EvH: Yes, the artists fees were quite high, I hadn’t realised how large the cost would be because I was working with artists from different disciplines who expected to be paid. I had to look for money and JMAC was the obvious choice. They put money towards the workshops that took place. I think that was also a bit different to what Jacques would have done. I still wanted to have the hand of the old school artists, like Ndasuunje Shikongeni and Nangombe Kapanda, those who follow in the legacy of Muafangejo. So, we put up the work from those workshops in the exhibition as well. Showing what printmaking can look like now and also at the same time questioning whether you have to print like Muafangejo to be successful or to honour him. So, in a way also being critical of what we have so much of. The board members of JMAC were very appalled.

I’ll sketch it for you quickly. There is the director of the Institution behind the podium, on the stage and one other speaker, and I’m supposed to be the third speaker, but now I’m busy organising other things at the back. There was also a social media influencer on stage who we had invited in the hopes of attracting her following. In retrospect maybe we were lucky they didn’t come, since Julia was quite vulnerable during her performance and a larger crowd might have been dangerous. Anyway, the three of them were on stage facing the audience and Julia came up behind them, totally naked and bent over to adjust the sound for her performance later. The three speakers were all totally unaware of it. I was also oblivious and came on later to introduce her performance.

HH: But there was no danger to Julia during the performance?

EvH: No, no physical violence, but many people took selfies and photos, which was my mistake. I should have said no photo’s before it started. The Institution loved it, they said it was just the boost they needed.

HH: These tensions are really interesting, right? The Franco Namibian Cultural Centre supporting the artist while the local establishment react so negatively.

EvH: As always, it’s our conservatism that makes us suffer.

HH: Do you think that there might be any long-term repercussions for the Arts Association, for funding maybe?

EvH: I hope not. I think people have forgotten and JMAC no longer exists in the same way now, its board has been disbanded and it will fall under the National Art Gallery. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.

HH: It’s interesting how there’s this uproar of emotion and then it kind of gets forgotten.

EvH: Yeah. I don’t know how many people remember the event. But one of the ex-board members, who couldn’t be there, heard about it and told me that I must have done something right, he was very proud of me.

HH: In my interview with Jacques, he also mentioned it. He seemed to be happy that the season had gone ahead without him. I guess when you leave an institution you don’t know whether your projects will continue to live without you or not.

EvH: Yeah, I mean it’s basically my take on it. It’s not like I knew how to do it his way.

HH: That’s also the way things go, curators bring their own voice to different projects.

EvH: The other artist I found very interesting in this project was Vilho Nuumbala. He submitted five black and white images. They were mind blowing to me. One of the images was of a billboard, with a white grandma on it, advertising the Swakopmund retirement village and I looked at this thing for so long. I could understand all the other work and for the life of me I could not understand what he was trying to say with this one. I just didn’t get it and I had to ask him what the photograph was about. I could see how the others were linked to our contemporary problems with poverty, how the situation hasn’t really changed for many people, too many children are sleeping under bridges. They linked to how we struggle with the integration between the generations and between white and black people. He said to me; ‘It’s because you’re so privileged you just can’t see what it means to be a white Grandma, you have security, you can have a retirement, there is a whole village created for you where you can go and stay, also how they sell it, it’s clearly for white people.’

HH: Absolutely. It’s not a mistake that it’s a white grandmother on that billboard. They know exactly who has the money in Namibia to pay for end of life luxury.

EvH: So that was very enlightening for me. I was so grateful that he helped me. As the curator I obviously have to be able to speak about the work, but I also let him explain his work when we did the walk about. The French ambassador was initially unimpressed with Muafangejo’s work, she said it was very poor quality, but she did like Vilho’s photographs. So that was interesting to me.

Then we had two Namibian filmmakers come in to screen their films and also to talk about them.

HH: When they spoke, did they all relate it back to Muafangejo’s work?

EvH: Yes, one of the prints that I had selected for the exhibition was, ‘Mother and Child’. I had asked the artists to respond to anything that grabbed them. He used a film about a sex worker, and her life as a mother, with a child. In speaking back to the works, we managed to make it very contemporary.

HH: It sounds like that was a really successful way to interact with these historic objects, which is what they become when they enter a collection. Were all of the pieces on show from the Arts Association collection?

EvH: Yes.

HH: You mentioned that you didn’t have funding to do a catalogue, so it existed very much in that moment. Is there a way for people to access the works and dialogue from the season now that it’s over?

EvH: No, because, again, lack of staffing. I took photographs, when I could, but we didn’t manage to film it, which would probably have been the better way to do it.

HH: I think people don’t realise that funding not only enables you to do a project, but it also allows a project to have a life afterwards. Could speak a bit more about funding?

EvH: Yes, exactly. Because right now, when I do my budgets, I put in money for a catalogue, but that’s the first thing to be cut. They are seen as unnecessary luxuries. They are extremely expensive. Now that Actofel Iilovu is working with me I hope to do more. For the ‘Textiles and Textures’ exhibition, I asked him to photograph everything so that we can at least make an e-catalogue for it. Whether they are printed or not, so that there is a record and archive.

HH: What was it like working with artists and producers from other disciplines?

EvH: I had to prove myself to them. I realised that it was like how I had to learn how to work with the photographers back in the day, all their specific requirements. It was a learning curve. I ended up involving a curator for the films, he didn’t want me to be involved in choosing films. None of the filmmakers would speak to me without him. It’s how they protect their industry. I can understand it because people don’t respect their work, they always want to show the films for free. I had to really work through that process and learn how to deal with filmmakers.

HH: Did the audience pay to watch the films?

EvH: No, entrance was free. One of the biggest difficulties was organising that space, it had become very problematic over the years because it’s a multifunctional, multipurpose space and they hold events in the middle of exhibitions sometimes. Last year they held an auction in the middle of Julia Hango’s exhibition and removed some of her more sensitive works. She was furious. For Muafangejo Season I spoke to the director and insisted that we sign a contract for a two-week exhibition without interruption. That was the agreement.

HH: The FNCC is obviously an organisation with international ties. How do you see your connection with the global art world?

EvH: I think I would like to work with the international community more, but I find it tough enough to just work with our local-international community.

HH: I’ve been thinking that this might be a flawed question. Because, you know, the point of our work doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with anyone other than the people we work with.

EvH: I think the Goethe Institute is very busy with that type of thing. Their programme is quite connected.

HH: You don’t see much of a connectedness in the Artist Association programme right now?

EvH: Our focus at the moment is still very local, but I think that will change. Now that the Arts Association has a new centre manager. We would both like to work more with other African countries, I think. I don’t think we should focus so much on north-south collaborations; we should rather try to work south-south. Just based on the feedback that I have had over the years, from artists who go on residencies. They freeze on that continent, and they freeze in various ways. It’s cultural shock, you know. We’ve spoken to institutions on that side of the world and told them that they must change their requirements for their southern partners. We cannot forever be held against northern standards, which are taken to be the norm. That is something they must start to recognise if they want to interact with us.

HH: I think standards might be the wrong word.

EvH: Yes. I mean requirements. When they write down their requirements, it’s all done from that privilege environment, I don’t think they can even imagine the contingencies that we have to deal with on our side. Yes. So cultural shock is just one among many shocks that artists have to deal with. Just getting a visa on this side is almost impossible.

HH: Yeah, International travel is a nightmare with certain passports.

The Namibian Arts Association holds a large collection, and that collection has a lot of history. Can you talk a little bit about the collection and how you work with it and negotiate that history in the present?

EvH: I don’t think I’ve really managed to negotiate that history in the present. Yet. This exhibition [at the time of the interview we were sitting in the Arts Association gallery with the exhibition, ‘Other Worlds’] is a moment where I am trying to deal with it in some way. This was very ad hoc, because the space had to be filled. It wasn’t really envisioned beforehand exactly. I put up the works and only afterwards could properly ask myself why. Many of these works are from the 1980’s. A lot of our collection is from that utopian wonderful period in history before there were black people [said sarcastically]. Which is why I brought in these artefacts. Those modernists found their inspiration in Africa, which is something that goes widely unacknowledged still today. Gina’s exhibition, ‘Long Story Short’ at the National Art Gallery, really got me thinking about these things and how we should be interrogating our collection here. But at the time when it was up, I hardly had the time to sit with it.

HH: Perhaps you could describe your job a little bit? You administer a big collection? How big is it?

EvH: 1400 objects.

HH: And then you have also been the only person working on the contemporary programme of exhibitions, while also engaging with artists because this is a members-based organisation?

EvH: Yes.

HH: So that hasn’t really allowed you the time that you need to really speak back to the collection and look at its roots?

EvH: No, in most cases I was just running like a chicken without a head. Just trying to cover ground, you know, and not knowing where to go really. Although I could sense on a deeper level, with the help of Jacques, and attending the decolonisation workshop, that something needed to change. You also need to understand that our collection is under audit at the moment. So I am also dealing with the auditors.

HH: That’s about the items that were collected while the collection was at the National Art Gallery?

EvH: Everything that was collected from 1990 to 2000 is under dispute and might belong to the National Art Gallery collection. So that also takes up a lot of my time, it’s work that really has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the artworks or connecting the artworks with people.

HH: Is that the Arts Association’s mission?

EvH: It has changed over the years, but back in the day, it was an organisation for artists. The artists would have safaris, they would have their exhibitions and over time a collection grew out of that. But a bigger dream developed, and they decided they wanted to make a gallery and make it for the country.

I think the other exhibition that taught me a lot was the first exhibition that was up here when I came back to work in April. Actofel Iilovu had put up the exhibition ‘How Independence Came to You’. I wrote the text. Again, the work was up but there was no text. I had to engage with the works and really interview the artist to speak about what happened here. Putting the exhibition together was quite a process, first they asked for donations to come in, any memories and artefacts from the 1990 hype around the elections and independence. For example, one person brought in an old trunk and we weren’t sure what the point of it was, but it turned out that it was for jumping ship, it was a very insecure and unclear time for some people.

HH: So obviously a white family, thinking about fleeing at the moment of independence?

EvH: Yes. Once all that came in, Actofel asked contemporary young artists to respond to these objects and one artist chose to work with, and try to decolonise the trunk.

HH: So everyone was working in the gallery space?

EvH: Yeah. It wasn’t preconceived, it was all happening in the moment, it was very fresh. Kind of like a laboratory. I had never worked like that before. It was something like Relational Aesthetics, that happened here, but I’ve never really experienced that.

HH: What’s coming out here, which is fascinating for me, is that the restraints that you have had on your time, have resulted in two exhibitions that, for a lot of curators, might look like you’re working backwards. The work comes out and the concept forms afterwards. Especially in the case where all works were from the collection [referring to ‘Other Worlds’]. The work had to make its way to the walls before you could conceptualise a story around it. Do you think that this process might have resulted in an exhibition that tells you more about the character of these objects?

EvH: It’s something like that. I should also add, though, that for this exhibition I couldn’t touch any of the 700 works that were under audit. But, I still had to fill the walls, because that’s what people want. I was basically left with a lot of modernist work. Things that contained triangles, a bit of expressionism, some cubism, lots of abstraction. While I sat with the works, I realised that the issues that were relevant to these modernists, are resurfacing now for contemporary artists. We are also only just recovering from war here, that ended only 30 years ago. I think that’s what I wanted to show, 30 years later we have this wonderful collection that is so lauded. But what if this collection is holding on to a world that once was, and stopping us from moving forward into the future, so that we can’t become present.

I called it ‘Other Worlds’, because when you are traumatised, when you come out of a war, or a very traumatic experience you create para-cosmoses, fantasy worlds, to cope with and to deal with trauma. Some of these works were not meant to be understood, but some are quite representational, and others relate to the world of the spirit. We deal with life and death. If you think of automatic drawing and automatic painting, those were the techniques employed by these modernist artists too, they searched for inspiration in other worlds. They went to other places. We know that Picasso found his inspiration in African sculptures. But somehow people still think that everything that comes from Europe or America is better. I want to show that what you have here, right in front of you, was the inspiration for what was fantastic and better. Look at the work of one of the San artists, you see all the elements of modernism and impressionism, the composition, the shape. All of this was done by someone who was labelled ignorant and backward in Africa. But how can that be? Somehow it comes back to Africa.

HH: So, this exhibition was a way to re-examine the context that these works have been shown in in the past. In your curatorial work, what roles do you see yourself playing?

EvH: I just hate admin. Now that there is a manager here I am in the process of handing all the admin over to her, she might hand it back to me, but we’ll see how it goes. I would prefer to be able to think about art, to write about art. I feel very guilty for studying and knowing so much, but not being able to express what I know. Not being able to use it, to link it to our collection. To educate people. I see myself as an educator, I see myself as someone who can educate our society through art.

HH: Your curatorial role is an educational role?

EvH: Yes. I don’t think I’m a disruptor. I mean, Jacques, was saying the other day, when we were in a panel discussion, he refers often to fire and the properties of fire. He sees himself as someone who, being queer, disrupts and questions society. I don’t. I don’t see myself as being disruptive because I occupy a difficult position. And when I say position, I don’t mean my role as a curator or manager, I mean as a white female who comes from an assumingly privileged background. I have to meander my way through what is happening at the moment, there are days where I’m not so sure whether there is a space for me. And then there are days where I have high hopes again, and where I can see how to engage with the works. In those moments I feel like I can use these works to educate people about what happened in the history of this country, but also to think about how our future can be shaped.

HH: You’ve just been talking about trying to look at these works in a way that is fundamentally different from how you were taught to look at them. To me that sounds like a disruptive thing. But you would prefer to think of it as transformative? That perhaps trying to educate people with this work is also trying to create transformation?

EvH: I really have never thought of it as disruptive, if it is, then that’s news to me.

HH: You also don’t think of that your work with Muafangejo Season is disruptive either? You were asking contemporary artists to respond to and be critical about his work.

EvH: I must say again, Helen, this is the thing with me, I realise it’s a pattern in my life. I do things not knowing that it might cause problems. Because I don’t see that it can be a problem. With the Muafangejo Season, two established male artists came to me and said that they were absolutely appalled by what I’d done. And they said; ‘you have destroyed Muafangejo of us, you are not a good curator, look what you’ve done to Muafangejo’. That was all during the panel discussion earlier in the week. By the end of the week, we had another session, at a dance performance. I gave the mic to people and said; ‘just speak your mind, just say what you feel, how you find this dance’. Then one of the same artists spoke again, and he said; ‘I was so angry, but now I see what she’s busy with, she’s trying to engage us all, she’s trying to show us that art can move in a new direction’. He started to grasp my intention. Which was very nice for me, because I really thought I had totally failed to communicate. I never intended to be disrespectful, but I wanted to shake people and make them realise.

HH: It’s interesting to me that you classify yourself as non-disruptive. But the educational role you see yourself in also puts you in that space quite often. Is there a museum/gallery/curator who you model your work on?

EvH: No not really. I mean, I had only one mentor and that was Annaleen Eins. And I know for sure that that formalistic approach is not going to help me at the moment. So, I have to figure out my own way. That’s basically where I am. I’m on my own. I feel often like I am either a dinosaur or I am doing stuff that nobody understands or wants to understand. I have serious doubts about my place here as a curator. I am very much inspired when I attend workshops and I see people like Molemo Moiloa, the previous director of Visual Arts Network South Africa, now she works freelance.

HH: Did she come to the curatorial boot camp?

EvH: Yes. I met her last year at the Museum Dialogues organized by the Goethe Institut, when I was asked to be one of the panellists. I am inspired by these people who managed to do their own thing, to go out and be freelance curators, but I’m not one of them.

HH: You’re very much institutionalised?

EvH: I don’t know if I’m institutionalised, I do need a safe space and I need a regular space. I’m not someone who can work on this project and then change and run off to that country and do a project there and then back here again. I wasn’t born in a place or time where that’s how people work or were trained. I am not a celebrity curator either, I realised that when we had a workshop with an independent curator from Zimbabwe. As much as I have respect for him, I don’t envy him. I don’t aspire to be like him. That’s part of the patriarchy for me. But I leave it there. I just go my own way.

HH: So, what would you like the future of your work to be?

EvH: I want food in art. I want plants, I want to see this place grow. I don’t know. I want more relational aesthetics. I want more of that. And I want to experience that here. I want to work with artists who work like Yoko Ono, people who approach everyday life as art, and I think that is coming now, I feel it, I can sense it. That’s what I get from the younger generation of artists, that they are working like that. But they are very scared of this place. I’m inside this building and the people that I want to work with, the art that I want to see, is outside this building. Somehow, I need to get outside. Many years ago, one of my art teachers introduced spices as a paint medium to me, and I thought already then, that it was cool, I like this.