Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja’s curatorial practice currently focuses on live public art and is influenced by his own performance practice. While working for the John Muafangejo Art Centre he curated several exhibitions and live events. Much of his work also took the form of workshops and discussions that questioned the institutional framework of the arts. For example, the workshop ‘Decolonising Arts Education’ in 2016 produced an executive summary co-written by its 16 participants, three of whom were interviewed for this project (Nelago Shilongoh, Hildegard Titus and Elize van Huyssteen). These workshops have played an important role in shaping conversations about art and institutionalized practice.
Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja is a performer, educator and writer with practice and research interests in embodied and spatial archives in movement formation. Mushaandja holds an MA in Performing Arts from the University of Namibia and an MA in Applied Theatre from the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. Mushaandja is currently a PhD artist at the Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies at the University of Cape Town studying Queer Praxis in Oudano Archives. Mushaandja worked as the project manager at the John Muafangejo Art Centre (JMAC) from 2015-2018. During this time, he organised exhibitions, symposiums and live art events.
(cover portrait of Mushaandja by Julian Salinas)
[Elsewhere in these interviews Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja is also called Jacques.]
HH: Tell me a little bit about ‘Operation Odalate Naiteke’, were you still working at the John Muafangejo Art Centre at the time?
NM: No. You mean when it was conceptualised? No, I wasn’t. It was towards the beginning of last year, when I started this PhD. I had to think of a new project. I had started making things and curating things and organising and I was a bit worried about not organising anymore. It was very important to continue organising as an educator and curator, beyond my own artistic practice. So I thought I should try something like this, as a chapter or a section of my research. The other chapters include; the performance ‘Dance of the Rubber Tree’, which I started last year at the Hamburg archives and have taken to many places like theatres and museums since. Another chapter is on John Muafangejo, another on Rock Art, and another on the singer, Meme Nanghili Nashima. I was particularly inspired by the John Muafangejo Season that we had started in Windhoek a few years ago.
HH: That was an annual project wasn’t it?
NM: Yes, every October, over his birthday. There is this whole legacy of John Muafangejo and at the time I thought that the dialogue was very narrow. So we built a project that was more responsive and innovative, and forward thinking. When I left JMAC I didn’t think it would continue. But it did, the Arts Association took it on. JuliArt [also called Julie Hango elsewhere in these interviews] exhibited with them and she took the conversation to the next level.
HH: Oh, did she?
NM: Yes, she explored the feminization of Muafangejo by bringing attention to John’s mother. Through her radical nude performance, she explored the playfulness of the maternal archive through John’s work in the space. The curators had to explain to various people what art is, some of those people didn’t even go to the performance but they were throwing shade at the art talk afterwards. It was great, it made me realise that we had really started something, right? It’s so brave of Actofel Iilovu and JuliArt to keep doing these things. Anyway, so when I was conceptualising Odalate Naiteke, I was thinking about Muafangejo Season, but I particularly wanted something less institutional, more informal, more underground. Something in Katutura because I had noticed that almost nothing, in terms of the work that we do, is happening in Katutura. I don’t mean KCAC [Katutura Community Art Centre, an old migrant labour compound that was transformed into a campus for the College of the Arts after Namibia gained independence from South Africa], I mean Katutura, as in all the sides of Katutura. I started to wonder what it would mean to intervene with something that might look like a festival but is not a festival. Something more like an intervention, very incidental, like you will only see it if you are there, so not something that is strong on marketing. Like a radical notion of news. If you weren’t there you didn’t see it. So very ephemeral. But also, importantly, something that leaves traces. Whether online or on the grey walls of Windhoek. When I started writing my PhD I was interested in the notion of resistance cultures and their archives. Katutura, in itself as a resisting name, but also “Odalate Naiteke” which means “the fence must break”, a slogan used by contract labourers in 1971 to shut down the country. I thought that was really important because I’m particularly interested in disrupting borders. The wire or the fence as representative of all kinds of borders. Just the act of going to do something in Katutura is resisting borders, crossing borders. Also using that slogan, that was historically used in Katutura, that for me is a way of using archives and getting artists to start playing with the archive. The whole thing is really based around the archive, really radical, transgressive notions of the archive. These are keywords in my research.
HH: The archive is central to a lot of your work, but you don’t always seem to be talking about a physical space, or items or objects or documents that are stored in one place. You are talking about an expanded notion of the archive?
NM: Yeah, definitely. If you look at my performance projects, there you find things from colonial archives, things from nationalist archives, institutional archives, but also things from embodied archives, so just ideas. Like the idea of a rubber tree, for example. It is an archive because I take the knowledge that I know from the North of Namibia, of what a rubber tree is and what it is used for. I use that archive of knowledge to find its conceptual possibilities for me as an artist. Also, spatial archives, which is what I was very interested in for Odalate. I feel like Katutura is a very rich, very complex, very full, well maybe not full, but really juicy, place. Especially if we think about its histories and about its archives. Whatever that means, for a place that does not even have a formal archive. Or if we think of it as a museum, or as museums. If you look at the grey walls, which are throughout the whole city, whether its someone’s yard or Sam Nujoma Stadium, all these places, there are marks all over them. I am taking a lot of pictures currently, of all the ‘vandalism’, of what people write on the walls. One piece that just keeps reoccurring says, ‘Life Goes On’. You’ll find it on all sorts of walls, even walls that are not grey, like a school wall.
HH: That’s a great statement. You know, on the one hand, it’s very pessimistic. Something terrible has happened.
HH: But it’s also, really optimistic, because, you know, life goes on.
NM: It’s where we don’t belong, right?
NM: So I was thinking about all of these archives. There is a lot here in this geography that we can do, and that we can intervene in, in multiple ways. But, particularly around its spatial history. Just that statement, ‘Life Goes On’, is somehow a radical statement, if you choose to see it that way. It is self-determination, self-care, it’s the self-writing-the-self, right? In a place where we don’t belong. So for me, as a curator, I realised there is more that we can do in this space. Especially if you look at other townships or other spacialities on the continent. Obviously, South Africa would be a cliché example, but if you think of Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Ghana. That festival happens on a street in a township close to the sea, surrounded by historic buildings, it is super popular, like 40,000 people watching artists, hip hop, everything intervened everywhere. Or, if you think of Folakunle Oshun from Nigeria who founded the Lagos Biennial in 2017, using the Yaba Railway Compound. I met him last year. If you just think of how people have taken these spaces, and somehow intervened. That’s what I was thinking about when I was planning Odalate.
HH: Right so adding another layer to the space in a way, acknowledging those spaces and their histories, and then choosing to contribute to them. I think that’s an interesting part of your process with Odalate Naiteke, you’re not just bringing a project in and taking it away again, but in the process, you are considering what kind of layers your project might add to the space. What sort of traces do you think were left by Odalate?
NM: It’s complicated, I think because I plan for it to be annual, the first one will be the most ephemeral one. Some of the traces aren’t necessarily all that tangible. I mean, the idea was to go paint Sam Nujoma stadium, but to get access for that, even if we planned months ahead, was impossible. Our letter just went in circles, and no one knew what to do with it at City of Windhoek. So, I wanted to leave obvious traces like that. But we are planning for October again, we’re gonna go back again and try more. For the moment it’s online, the Facebook page of Odalate and Instagram are very good traces and remains. I mean, the ironic part was that we were really interested in archives but building our own has been difficult. We had a marketing person, an artist who took pictures for social media and uploaded them on that day. In terms of traces though, it is also the people who were there.
HH: Experiential traces?
NM: The public, the artists themselves, because it was a unique experience. Very unexpected. Kresiah Mukwazi from Zimbabwe and Antonio Muhambe, from Mozambique, really wanted to do murals but they just couldn’t. They ended up going to paint at Three Circles [three heavily graffitied circular slabs of cement on a hill-top in an affluent suburb, a popular place from which to watch the sunset] after the project was over. So if you look for a page called Operation Penduka on Facebook or Twitter, you might see some photos there.
HH: I suppose with projects that are intended to be annual, it’s important not to think, ‘this is the one’ but rather allow it to be a process.
NM: Yes, very much so, I think, highlighting work that is experiential. Where the experience becomes the trace and that goes back to the discourse around lived experience and the body as a thing that knows, and a thing that remembers. One of the days, I think it was the Wednesday or the Thursday, we had two musicians from South Africa, and they played at the Old Location Memorial. So, it wasn’t just restricted to Katutura, it was also going to play for the dead at the cemetery. There’s a tree there, where we just turned up with equipment, and there were maybe four audience members. The musicians played until it got dark, there by Hochland park, it was the most haunting, but also fulfilling experience. One of the musicians was annoyed, and was like, ‘why did you bring us here?’. But after he played, he got it. He understood what it was about. That it was not a show as such, but more something that we had to do, we had to go there, and just play and just enjoy the music with whoever turned up, and then go home. That was it. So for me, it’s traces like that, like playing for the dead. What does that mean? Do the dead listen, and do they remember? I believe they do.
HH: When you’re talking about this, you keep saying the word we. Do you mean it in a collaborative sense?
NM: Someone did social media, there was a stage manager, somebody who would liaise and make sure that the programmes ran smoothly and could run between things to hold spaces, and sort of usher the audience around. But when I say we, I also mean the artists. It was very important that they curated their own thing, the way they wanted to curate it. That my role as a curator almost became no work at all, although there was work. Because you needed to run around and book things. Do this, do that, do this. I mean, what Jay Pather refers to as ‘the death of the curator’ in the book, Acts of Transgression. He writes really nicely about the impossibility of curating live art. That performance, for example, keeps changing, that you can’t curate the thing really. It’s not about taking work and hanging it up, you know? Artists can do that themselves. For example, when I worked with Tuli Mekongo, I asked, what is your work about? And then I asked, what do you need? Then made sure she had what she needed. In this way the role of the curator becomes more like a facilitator role. What’s important is for the artist to make, not just artistic decisions, but the curatorial decisions themselves. Where do they want to come from as the artist? Instead of me saying, ‘Okay, now walk in from there’, or me giving the frame to the audience and saying, ‘This is what I want you to see’, my role almost dissolved, I was in the background, not the curator who is the star.
HH: Is it too reductive to say that as a curator it’s about understanding what it means to allow authorship to take place elsewhere?
NM: I’m starting with the planning for next October now, with inviting artists, but I’m also thinking of inviting younger curators, or people who just organise, and sort of setting up a curatorial committee, where we somehow divide the curatorial labour, whatever that means, and we somehow curate together. That will be complicated because I want the approach to still be the artists driving the thing. For example, I just talked to JuliArt yesterday. I told her what the project is about, that there is no specific theme, Operation Odalate, like we did last year. I told her where she could see some documentation. Then I said, ‘Let us know if you want to participate, preferably in Katutura, but at a site of your own choice and let us know what you want’. So we don’t define the venue. We suggest. For some artists, we’re inviting some Kwaito artists from Katutura, who we just think are so cool, we have a concert stage where they are welcome to perform. But if an artist wants to perform elsewhere, they can let us know. Some artists like to play more with spatiality and archival material and it’s our job to just say, ‘Okay, what do you need? We’re here for you.’
HH: From what you were saying earlier it seems like Odalate is a project that doesn’t have an institutional home. Is that right?
NM: That’s correct. The institutional home is Katutura, but that’s vague. So at the moment I use funds from my scholarship to fund the project, and the Mozambican and Zimbabwean artists were funded by Pro Helvetia. They were supposed to come to JMAC. But JMAC dropped them after I left. So, I was like, ‘Okay come to Odalate’.
HH: I suppose we somehow forget that institutions are made up of individuals and when you left JMAC, part of JMAC stopped existing. The institution keeps its name, but changes form. It really is a strange thing that institutions can do.
NM: They were not going to use JMAC money, they had a fully funded residency for two weeks. All they needed was that space, which they were able to pay for, and engage with the students. But JMAC was not responsive. So as a curator of this project, I linked them with people at the College of the Arts, I told them that these people were in town and that they wanted to do things with students, and we slotted that into the programme. So we have institutional partners in that sense. In the sense of having a funder, who didn’t mind giving us the money and saying, ‘Go do your thing’. When I say it’s not institutional, I mean I’m very careful about not making it a very popular thing. People kept saying, you need posters everywhere, and you need to push it and you need partners, and you need sponsors. No, that’s not the dream, because I know what that does. It co-opts it immediately. It gets lost, right? That’s not this project, this project is about breaking the fences that institutions establish, those fences that are harmful and oppressive, and historically suppressive. Because even JMAC, which was physically located in Katutura at the time, was restricted in terms of what it could do in public space, right?
HH: Absolutely. Even institutions that have that as their mandate can’t stop themselves from becoming, like you said, popularised but also in the process, somehow exclusive.
NM: I’m not trying to say that Odalate is that perfect Alpha and Omega situation, it has its own flaws and drawbacks. But I think you lose a lot when you institutionalise. Maybe in the future we will have to institutionalise, when it becomes too big, and we need all the money from the big people. But I think now, as a research project, it’s very important to explore being an underground, easy to miss, thing.
HH: So, it’s not only a curated project, a product, it isn’t just the result of research, but it is also part of the research?
NM: I mean, I met Fola [Folakunle Oshun] last year, at this Pro Helvetia event, it was their birthday in Joburg. He presented on his project, and I presented on my project. I said; look, if one person turned up, that was enough, we can go home and have tea. And he was like, ‘No, you need to think about critical mass and critical mass is very important’. Now obviously coming from Nigeria, he doesn’t understand that I come from the desert. Then Thulile Gamedze came in and said; ‘No, this thing of critical mass is patriarchal’, and she had a really great explanation, that the notion of critical mass has been used a lot in all these nationalist and popular struggles, the thinking being that in order to make change you need to attract the whole country. But no, one person can constitute critical mass, because that one person’s experience doesn’t just stop there. They go and share, right? The trace we referred to earlier. So, for me, it was really interesting to think about impact beyond quantity.
HH: Yeah. Especially when you are working in public space, the audience really can be whoever is there. Attracting people from somewhere else just means that you see the same audience in different places over and over again. Like the way the same people trek from Venice to Basel to the next Biennial or art fair. What if your primary audience wasn’t them, what if it was just the people who already occupy that space?
NM: If we speak about contemporary art, galleries and curators, there’s an assumption about who the consumers are, globally. Everyone has their regular crowd. What I liked about Odalate, last year, is that you couldn’t see a lot of those people. Because people don’t like coming to Katutura. A few managed to pop up here and there. But it was just nice to have local people, a lot of children who just happened to be in the park. We went to Jacob Marengo high school to work with the students. We experienced another kind of audienceship. That was very special. Tapping into another kind of consumer, instead of just the ordinary art lover, you know? We were starting to establish another place.
What I’m really finding interesting right now, in my research, as someone who is interested in transgression, I also had to sit with the understanding that transgression comes out of tradition, right? To somehow transgress, is also to make a tradition. Where queer theory is anti-normalising, there is an inevitable normalising that happens in the process. Like gay marriage, in a way is normalising something, making an establishment. By making what we are making, we are creating an archive of sorts, that leaves out other archives. To make an archive is to somehow also exclude, because something will always be left out. So to transgress a tradition is somehow to make another thing, maybe it’s not a tradition, but it will be another thing, it will be something else that we have created.
HH: Another establishment?
NM: Yes. So it’s also the relationship between the rehearsal and the revolution. The rehearsal seems to be rigid, remember your lines, come in every day, do the same thing, the black box and the white cube. And then there is the revolution, which comes out of the rehearsal. So it’s important, for me as a curator not to think, ‘Okay, now, I’m transgressing. I’m radical. And I’m the only one and I’m making history. Yes, you’re making history, but you aren’t the first to do this’. Radical traditions already exist. You know?
HH: Yeah. I suppose it’s also only meaningful in the context of other people.
HH: So Operation Odalate was an international project and involved artists from Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana?
NM: And Zimbabwe
HH: Can you speak a little more about your connections to the wider art world outside of Namibia?
NM: Yeah, I think part of the thinking of post-Muafangejo is also to somehow reclaim the Namibian artist space in the international community. As a global tart, everywhere I’ve been in the world, I always ask the question; do you know Namibian artists? Most people don’t know any Namibian artists.
HH: And even if they do, they tend to think that they’re South African.
NM: Yes, people might know Muafangejo and one or two musicians. So I think what we started developing, Muagangejo Season, and maybe not just with Muafangejo Season, but during that whole period of time, with you guys at the National Art Gallery and me at JMAC, and the conversations we were facilitating and realising that we needed to break these borders, these national borders that have kept us in Namibia. There was suddenly this influx of artists that started coming in, it felt like a turning point. And I realised, part of my fear was, that a lot of that might stop when I went to study. So for me, it was important to keep it going, that was part of the dream. Not just artists coming in, but also us going elsewhere. That’s why we did the Owela Festival and Kaleni Collective. I thought it was important to continue with that transnational dialogue, as part of sort of breaking the borders, especially local borders, to get Namibian artists to go into all these other spaces, in these other countries, and see what’s possible. If we think of John Muafangejo, he was born in Angola, he lived in Oukwanyama, and later moved to Windhoek, then studied in South Africa and came back to Windhoek. For me, it’s a very good example of how artists don’t have to be restricted to the borders. I mean, a lot of our economic struggles are because we only look to our own government. There’s a whole world out here with money and funders and you just have to keep knocking and they will hear you eventually. Even when they do hear you, you still have to keep knocking.
That story of a mobile artist was really important for me. Mobility is a very important thing for my curatorial and performance practice, that we always keep moving. We’re always carrying baggage and packing and going, right? The festival must not be stuck in one place. Whether it’s Owela or Odalate it keeps moving, we go to the graveyard, to Katutura, To KCAC, to UN Plaza, to Jacob Marengo School and Omitara. Mobility seems to be a very important feature in artistic practice, and in the health of the artist. In my experience, when I was working at JMAC, I was so mentally unstable. I mean, I drank a lot. I smoked a lot. But when I left that space, I stopped drinking. I felt much better. Because now I’m not stuck in one place anymore. Where I had to listen to people telling me what was possible and what was not possible. No. Now I can breathe, and I can create and I can conceptualise in a healthier and more enabling, well, not entirely enabling, but much better way.
HH: You talk about knocking for funding, that can be an exhausting process. How do you operate in terms of funding?
NM: I mean, it depends what kind of funding we are referring to also. I feel like there’s some progressive funders out there. I mean, some people might challenge me, but I think Pro Helvetia are progressive funders. Definitely in comparison to Germany, for example, who I work a lot with, who are way too bureaucratic and way too problematic, trying constantly to put their hands into the pie. So I find that it’s a matter of negotiating. You have to be able to stand there and say, no, or say, this is unacceptable, or, you know, negotiate as to what the terms of engagement will be.
It’s definitely still very limited. There are always power dynamics. But I think in the case of Odalate, for example, I’m lucky because I had this NRF funding last year and this scholarship from the Carl Schlettwein foundation. They literally just give me my money.
HH: That’s amazing.
NM: Yeah. Because it’s research, it’s practice, I don’t have to provide financial reports or anything like that.
I’ve worked with Pro Helvetia, for the last five years. It’s a very simple application process, and then a short report. And at no point have they tried to control my production process. Of course, you have to use their logo and do certain things within their specifications, but they really just let you do your work.
HH: We have to just hope and pray that it continues. We are so married to the problem of money.
NM: Well for me, that’s what a curator is as well, a curator is a mediator. Like an artistic director should be a mediator. When we performed ‘Dance of the Rubber Tree’ at the National Theatre, I did it for the first time with a company of performers, during the Owela festival, it was a powerful process. We had people in the roof throwing balloons, some of us were in the workshop, doing things under the stage, it was a whole thing. But there was a situation where the artistic director confronted the stage manager because management confronted her about us using the theatre in a transgressive way. They were worried about safety. I went to speak to her and I told her, ‘No, you are the artistic director and you know my work and we are part of the same collective, you’ve seen this work before, you’ve heard me saying that I want to start under the stage and in the roof, why did you go and give the poor stage manager a hard time?’ As the artistic director or as the curator, you are a mediator, your job is to mediate and make sure that management understands why the artist wants to be in the roof.
HH: Sometimes you have to be the person that stands between management and the artist to be that human shield.
NM: But you choose to be in that job. So you have to get people to compromise. But you can’t kak out your subordinates because they allow the crazy artist to do their work.
HH: In some ways, I think management thinks that the curator is like a lion tamer and our job is to make sure that the lion stands on the little box. Which really isn’t that interesting for anyone.
NM: Yeah. So all in all, I think what’s really important is mediating. It’s a huge responsibility. When I asked JuliArt to do something, she got back to me and said she had three crazy concepts, she said, ‘I’ll throw them to you’. And I’m kak nervous because you know she’s going to come with some challenging ideas. And it’s not my job to tone her down, no, that’s not my job. The job is to establish some kind of conversation, in order to see what’s possible. How can we make that dream possible together, but also, most importantly, to put her in the curatorial position too. To not only see myself as the curator, but to make sure that she also assumes curatorial responsibility. That she understands what it takes to acquire that space and to maintain it and to hold it.
HH: Would you like to talk a little more about the different spaces you have curated in?
NM: Yeah, I mean I don’t think we’ve exhausted or even started to explore all the possibilities. It goes back to the point about tradition and transgression. We’ve done a lot of tradition, right? Whether that’s wearing Oshiwambo traditional clothes or using traditional spaces like the National Art Gallery. We’ve really worked a lot in tradition, if we think of space and spatiality. But if we think of putting culture in alternative spaces, which for me, is my language and my interest, we’re only just starting. I want to use alternative spaces, whether they’re historic or not. I’m really speaking from my history as a practitioner, my interest in site specific and site responsive work. I mean, now, with all of the work we’ve been doing in the last few years, I think to a certain extent, there is a dialogue happening, but it needs to be a bit more enhanced and a bit more developed. Like, for example, ‘The Mourning Citizen’, when we first did it, it was inside the Alte Feste. The audience were seated, they were watching the artists perform in front of them. So there was almost a fourth wall. Even though it was on the historic site of a concentration camp. It was site specific, but it was more presentation than representation.
This year, we did it again. And boom, we were ready to actually explore the site, and what the site carried, the ephemeral aspects of the site that remain, and what those provide. I think that’s what I mean when I speak about the site, the space as an archive is very strong. It brings 50% of the work. So that the work that gets created does not necessarily have to be 100% finished. It’s relational.
An artwork or cultural production, in a given space, is not there in isolation, even if it was not created to link directly to that place, even when that place is a gallery, there is still a relationship there. Take the National Art Gallery building for example. It is a colonial building, historically, and no matter what the artists’ works are about, that link, that relationship, is still there. I’m interested in those relations. Because for me, my understanding of African art, historically, even before ideas about museums and galleries came in, is that it has always been relational. It cannot be read in isolation, it always is and always was, related to something.
We’ve spoken about transnational and transdisciplinary, now we are speaking about trans-spatiality. I came across, a very interesting term, trans-temporality. Did I tell you about this term?
HH: No, I don’t think so.
NM: I read about it in a book on the history of African popular cultures. This anthropologist Karin Barber writes that African texts, whether it’s a body or an artwork, or a T-shirt, or a song, cannot be read, cannot be pinned down to one point in history. Even if we know that this basket comes from the 1940s and there is anthropological evidence, that dating is still not accurate. In fact, it’s limiting. In 2019 I have to use my knowledge, that I have as an artist-scholar, as a cultural citizen, as a whatever. And also, I have to use what I know about the 40s and 30s, what was happening in anthropology at the time. And, I also have to use my knowledge of the future. The term they use is, successive mouths, right? But here we can use, successive hands. Successive hands have received it over the years and I will still pass it on to whoever comes next. So it cannot just be pinned down to one time in history.
HH: That’s kind of what gets denied by these mausoleum museum spaces. For the objects that they hold, the majority of that object’s life has now been in a colonial museum space. It’s been held in a storeroom for decades. So, you can’t pretend that that object is only relevant in that it was made in the 1940s?
NM: I’m looking at Rock Art in itself as a spatial archive, perhaps one of the best examples of a spatial archive, but the problem of archaeology is that it only reads it as a thing as if it’s fixed in the past. Someone wrote that the Damara people who live around Twyfelfontein and Brandberg don’t have a direct use for the rock art there. But then in the same paper, they’ll be like, the Bantu people who live around the Matopo hills, they use the site for rain making purposes. So, the question becomes, how do you know that the Damara people don’t overtly use the site? Are Damara people just one thing? All it shows is that the academic has no use for the rock art. They clearly see it as a thing that’s in the past, that was produced by the first people. As a scholar I’m saying, no, I’m looking at the bodies in the rock art, the playful bodies, and what those bodies are doing. How is my body able to relate to those bodies? So it’s also relating the body, and objects and time to space and to place. That is how you start to make those links.
HH: Do you draw a line between your curatorial work and your own artistic practice? Do you see a place where one ends and the other begins?
NM: Yes, and no. If you think of these two projects that I’m doing now for my PhD, one is that performance project, which I conceived as my art, and the other one is a curatorial project, which I consider to be more like mediating, organising and facilitating. But again, there’s a lot of overlap between the two. So, there are two clearly distinct projects, in which my roles differ. But I find that even in the curating I still have to put together interventions, like the applied arts intervention that we took to a particular school to learn about Ottilie Abraham’s history, for example. That’s artistic practice, that is applied in a given context or in a facilitating context.
In the performance project, for example, I worked with six artists, performance people, poets, musicians and actors. I gave them a text, some photos, archival material, and I explained the concept. It’s not a storyline, it’s a concept. I told them what I do in the performance, I burn things, and I throw salt around, and I explained that my idea is very much about transgressing. I said, come and burn if you wish, or, you know, see what works for you, see what does not work for you. So in a way, that is curating too. Because it’s inviting people to respond to an existing body of work, to contribute to it, to take from it too, to curate with you. Someone came and put photos out, someone else brought a song, someone came with an old raggedy Bible, saying that they wanted to burn it at the Christuskirche [A German colonial era Lutheran church located next to the sight of a concentration camp in central Windhoek].
So they somehow overlap. Maybe it’s more that at the genesis of each project I’m a performer. But that role changes as the performance travels and goes to different places. Especially when the performance is queering the archive. Part of queering the archive is curating knowledge, is being able to go into those archives and say, okay, that’s qu
eer, and that’s queer. Then taking it out and presenting it in some curative way. So in that case you are curating knowledge, enabling knowledge and mediating the process of knowledge making. As with Odalate for example, I started off as an organiser but in that role there’s a lot of performance and performativity that happens.
HH: So what about the future?
NM: I want to see a bit more transformation around these ideas that we just spoke about. That at some point people are able to, on their own, curate transgression everywhere, anywhere, you know? I was just writing my first journal article for a journal called Social Dynamics. And I’m writing about the embodiment of love on the margins of the city of Windhoek’s cinematic landscape. I’ve made a collection of artworks and videos, things that wouldn’t necessarily be considered cinema or film. So the work of Tuli Mekondjo, JuliArt, Tangeni Kauzuu and Neige Moongo. I had to somehow define the margins because in the feedback they were like, ‘What do you mean, these are on the margins? Some of this work is on YouTube, how is that the margins?’ And then I was like, Okay, yeah, maybe the margin is not a rigid, fixed space, because some of these artists, you find them in the National Art Gallery, and that’s a centre. So maybe it’s about how these works don’t influence the public imagination as much as the NAMAS, for example, or videos that are shown on NBC, or works that are shown at the Namibia Theatre and Film Awards. So, obviously, for me, I think my future is in seeing these concepts and these artistic productions infiltrated everywhere. I see this as an activist effort, of queering or feminising or creating black consciousness, or pan-Africanism or just promoting transgressive work. I think there will always be a need to transgress. We spoke earlier about all the grey walls, we need to have more than just grey walls, there needs to be a bit of colour, a bit of character, some tension. Not just one thing, because that is SWAPO, [South West Africa People’s Organisation, were voted into power in 1990 in the first democratic elections of independent Namibia and has been elected at every subsequent election] when it’s just one thing, when it’s just grey. No. We need to be plural!
HH: Yes, we need to be plural. But just to go back a little, that demand for the margins to define themselves is a demand from the centre, isn’t it? As far as talking about the margins can be a powerful thing, it can so quickly be pulled apart and denied, and in that way the conversation is stopped before you are even allowed to have it.
NM: Yep, just before it gets co-opted. I mean, there is this beautiful read on queer futurity. It’s by a writer called José Muñoz. He writes that queer futurity is almost like a horizon. So the more you move closer to it, the more it moves away. It’s like a rainbow, and you’re going and you’re going, but you can’t quite get there. You know? But I don’t think that it’s just this place that we keep wanting to go to. I mean as soon as we normalise or traditionalize there’s already a need to queer, and that’s what makes queer so beautiful. But I also want to think that the future is right now. We’re already doing stuff and, especially if we want to think of things as trans-temporal, that what we want to be in the future is somehow already evident and visible. Now, it’s just a matter of identifying those things and heightening them. Not seeing it as a product, but maybe as a process, of continuously queering and querying and questioning. Now suddenly it feels as if things are changing. When I was home last month, I don’t know if you will feel it too, but things are changing, compared to just three or four years ago. There is suddenly a lot of innovation. Or, I’m not sure if I want to call it innovation but a bit more critical consciousness. I mean with #metoo. Three years ago, I used to feel like, what the fuck am I doing in this country? People are just sleeping. But, no, you just need to find those traces and those sides where people are actually making the work.