Introduction, Curatorial Approaches, 2019

The following was written by curator and StArt Art Gallery co-founder Helen Harris as part of a Masters in Contemporary Curating, 2019.

The arts are often examined as a kind of litmus test to tell us about the concerns of the moment. We look to them with the intention of discovering the zeitgeist of an era, hoping that they can act as both a reflection of, and a commentary on, social and political issues. Using the same test on the institutions and networks that grow up around the arts can be equally productive. Together the interviews in this series draw a partial picture of the current political and social landscape of Namibia through the lens of curatorial production. The interview format provided an opportunity to highlight knowledge generated through practice, recording a great deal of detailed information that is not always available elsewhere. This introduction highlights some of the content of these interviews while further expanding on the context in which they took place. However it is not an exhaustive summary and what is written here only touches on the depth of the content covered in the interviews themselves. You can navigate directly to the interviews here. (Please note that the interviews with Shomwatala Ndeenda Shivute and Nelago Shilongo are not published here.)

Most of the interviews that make up this collection are built on previous conversations and collaborations. I entered the curatorial workforce in 2015 by becoming the exhibitions curator at the National Art Gallery of Namibia where I worked for two years. The institution did little to overtly limit or define the scope of my work. My understanding of my role as a curator in that environment was developed and shaped through my work and conversations with my contemporaries. These conversations continued when I opened StArt Art Gallery with Gina Figueira. From this perspective the relationships we had formed with other curators in Windhoek became even more important, as we began to negotiate our roles as cultural producers outside the museum.

As the collection’s curator at the National Art Gallery, Figueira cared for and worked on exhibitions of the collection. In this interview she reflects on that labour, discussing the colonial histories embedded in the collections and institutions where she has worked. Grappling with the colonial era, and its continued impact on the country, is a recurrent theme in the interviews that follow. She notes that her curatorial work has predominantly taken place in the centre of town, which historically is an exclusive and colonial centre. This geographic legacy is challenged directly by a number of the other interviewees. For example, Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja actively engages with and shows work in Katutura, a former apartheid-era township, while Shomwatala Ndeenda Shivute and Nelago Shilongoh have produced work that questions and challenges the colonial-era monuments that still litter the town centre. [1] In their interviews Figueira and Shivute both highlight the uneasy sense of complicity that is created by the confluence of the colonial centre of town with most prominent exhibition platforms.

The shifting role of the curator has been a matter of interest to many academics over the last few decades with the growing understanding that there can be, and is, more to curatorial work than the role of a caretaker. It has been noted that the role of the curator has in some ways usurped the role of the critic, with the curator producing critical spaces within exhibitions (O’Neil, 2007). For the majority of the curators interviewed here there is a clear indication that this criticality forms an important part of their practice. The curator Paul O’Neil has written that: “Alongside this predominantly curator-led discourse, curatorial criticism responded with the assertion of the separateness of the artistic and curatorial gesture – when such divisions are no longer apparent in contemporary exhibition practice” (O’Neil, 2007:14). This observation is particularly apparent when looking at the curators represented here, many of whom maintain an independent arts/design/performance practice that melds with and influences their curatorial work. The role of the curator in forming critical discourse in this context should perhaps also be acknowledged with the caveat that for many of them this role self-consciously takes the form of generating a platform for discourse rather than dictating the discussion.

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’ from 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 institutionalised practice. In his interview Mushaandja speaks to the particulars of curating performance, making reference to the curator Jay Pather. Pather considers the notion of the ‘Death of the Curator’ in relation to live art and makes reference to decolonisation, saying that “inherited assumptions around what constitutes a ‘good standard’ have become highly contested” (Pather, 2019:84). While he makes specific reference to live art in this text there is scope to apply his thinking to curation more broadly in a critical post-colonial context.

“To cease to live (and interfere) in the creation of presence, to disappear completely, may be the most productive strategy; a curatorial approach that refines and redefines the edges of involvement and disengagement, seeking out the delicate balance between these two positions in order to give life to new works that are probing and provocative while remaining speculative and unknowable” (Pather, 2019:103).

This positioning of the curator, and their authorial role, is applicable particularly in cases where the curator works directly with artists rather than at a distance from their processes. Throughout the interviews collected here, these relationships between curators and artists are discussed and framed as dialogic and complex, highlighting conversation as a key aspect of curatorial work. In this context the role of the curator or facilitator is constantly negotiated, with little room for dictatorial processes. This state of flux is a requirement of a commitment to shared authorship and responsibility. These dynamics are apparent to greater and lesser degrees throughout these eight interviews and are a result of the self-reflective curatorial processes that are at work in a post-colonial context.

Much of the 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 focusses 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 contended with two very different registers, one that sat in the past and another that looked to the future.

While van Huyssteen worked exclusively for a single organisation, Hildegard Titus has worked as a freelance curator for a number of institutions. Titus speaks about the difficulty of working in a context that has little conception of the value of curatorial work. This is substantively aligned with the undervaluing of other artistic practices. It is clear in her interview that Titus often finds herself defending the interests of artists in the face of institutions that are negligent or indifferent. She reflects on the curator’s ability to transform a space, either by actively creating access for individuals who have been previously excluded or by converting a non-institutional site into an exhibition space. In contrast Frieda Lühl has facilitated exhibitions exclusively in her own private space. The Project Room is an independent workshop and gallery space, based in her house. There is a high demand for this space among visual artists due to there being very few gallery spaces in Windhoek. Operating on a commercial level the Project Room has grown to host eleven exhibitions a year. There is a strong indication that The Project Room will grow and expand to fulfil some of the commercial potential of the arts. While her concerns are quite different from those of curators working further away from the commercial realm there is a clear consensus throughout these texts that the arts are underfunded. In her interview Figueira notes that this is also the pervading refrain of some of the best-funded art scenes in the world. For this reason, it is difficult to substantiate the different degrees of deprivation. Much worse, these conversations tend towards oversimplification, detracting from actually discussing the work at hand. However, I do think that reading these interviews can convey an impression of the relationship between money and art in Namibia.

The global burgeoning of art fairs and biennials has made the relationship between art and capital ever more apparent, with both public and private money being a major determining factor in the prominence and scope of the arts. In a report published in 2018, Corrigall & Co, an art research consultancy based in South Africa, wrote that the curators’ “position in the ecosystem has shifted as the commercial segments have grown. Visibility of African art doesn’t only rely on their efforts. Their importance within the system depends on them renewing or strengthening their link to validating centres or becoming more involved in commercial endeavours” (Murinik, 2018:137). In other words, Corrigall & Co put forward the position that curators might do important work, but this will not matter if the curators do not involve themselves in the value of artworks as commodities. While their observations show little nuance or criticality in the face of global wealth inequity and the colonial and neo-colonial forces that have cemented it, they do lay bare the forces of capital that render art either visible or invisible on a global platform. The commercial role of the curator is dealt with most directly here in the interview with Lühl, whose work focusses on accessing a private sector market for the sale of art. While funds can be accessed through the state – both local and international– Figueira, Shilongoh and Mushaandja all note that these funds are seldom free from political motivation.

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 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. The work that is currently being done in curation forms the basis of a negotiated set of practices that are critical and generative. The implications of this will only be felt if this critical work is carefully recorded and documented in order to be expanded and built upon.

Despite the more recent history of South Africa’s administrative and brutal colonial occupation of Namibia from 1915-1990, which saw Apartheid introduced from 1946, the majority of these interviews reflect more heavily on the German colonial era that preceded it. The last few decades have seen an increasing awareness of the 1904-1907 genocide, perpetuated by Germany during their relatively short colonial rule (1884-1915). The extensive academic literature on the topic [2] has been accompanied by political negotiations over reparations for the genocide. The German government long resisted the term genocide, with the insistence that the intended annihilation constituted a war. In 2004 a member of the German government gave a speech acknowledging that the “atrocities committed at that time would today be termed genocide” (Wieczorek-Zeul, 2004). However, it was only in 2015 that the genocide was officially acknowledged by the German government (Ochab, 2018). Negotiations to bring about an official apology accompanied by reparations are ongoing. There is no doubt that these developments have had a strong impact on cultural production, creating a discourse that can be traced through all the interviews that acknowledges and, in some cases, confronts the current and historical relationship between Namibia and Germany. This discourse affects ideas around what a decolonial curatorial practice might look like in a Namibian context and makes inroads into a critique of arts institutions. The role of the curator in forming and supporting this discourse is apparent throughout. In the desire to transform or exhibit outside the bonds of traditional institutional space expressed by most of the interviewees, we see a commitment to creating platforms that will accommodate and include ideas, artists and audiences who have long gone ignored.

As the curatorial co-ordinator for the National Art Gallery of Namibia, Shomwatala Ndeenda Shivute was well placed to talk broadly about the arts in Namibia. In her interview she reflects on her work for the institution as well as a recent collaboration with Nelago Shilongho. Shivute describes the personal roots of their project, ‘Ma Ndili’, again bringing to the fore the physically embedded nature of Namibia’s colonial history. We are provided with a discussion that describes the scope and limitations of working within and outside of institutional frameworks. The need and desire to question and criticise the institution from within matches the same desires expressed by those who work outside traditional institutional frameworks. As a mode of operation this ambivalence does not reflect a wish to create a new institution that is unassailable, rather it is an integrated position that is formed from the need to acknowledge the ongoing complicity of institutional practice in a larger historical system of inequality. By this measure the institution is not seen as operating at a distance from its social, political and historical context. Rather it is understood as fully and inevitably enmeshed, with criticism taking place on multiple levels within its structure.

With backgrounds in theatre, performance, jewellery design, photography, journalism, sculpture, documentary, library studies and architecture, each of the interviewees holds a position that is shaped as much by their training as the environments in which they work. This diversity of backgrounds paints a picture of cohesion between disciplines, and a picture of interdisciplinary practice. However, there are inevitable gaps that form between practitioners. I have appreciated and been aware of Nelago Shilongoh’s curatorial work for some time, yet we have seldom had the opportunity to sit and talk. This is in part due to the fact that her intellectual and institutional home has been the theatre and focussed on performance. Shilongoh currently works as the artistic director at the National Theatre of Namibia and draws little distinction between the careful and considered approach she takes to her curatorial and directorial work. This series of interviews ends with Shilongoh speculating about the future, describing it as being ‘far away’. However, her description leaves an impression of the great potential of the work that is being done now. Work that is impulsive and reactive, steadily growing to form a critical and nuanced discourse.

Read together these interviews serve to capture a moment in Namibian arts curating. Through them we can form a picture of the subtext and backdrop that inform the curatorial work that is being done. They touch on the difficult and compromising relationship between art and money in the context of a struggling economy as well as the growing focus on, and interest in, Namibia’s colonial history with a renewed interest in Namibia’s pre-Apartheid German colonial history. These two factors have produced a set of curatorial approaches that reflect a precarious professional environment and uneasy relationships with arts institutions. The work that is produced in spite of, and in some cases because of these circumstances, forms a discourse that demands a social and reflexive role for the arts in society. The conversations that are forming around this curatorial work highlight the role of the curator as a facilitator and an enabler of change who can make space for both transformative and transgressive practices. Within a growing discourse of decolonial practices, these interviews respond to the pressing need to gather and reflect on our methods of curating and facilitating the work of others as well as our own.

[1] The Marinedenkmal, Schutztruppe monument, Reiterdenkmal and the Curt von François statue are all named examples of colonial era monuments that come up in these interviews. They memorialise the deaths and deeds of German soldiers, officers and commissioners. Curt von François, for example, was a mercenary in the Congo, paid by King Leopold to enforce and extend his rule over the private slave state for three years. Von François ruthlessly applied what he had learned in the Congo to his work in South West Africa. His actions were a clear part of the trajectory that lead to the Namibian genocide. (Erichsen and Olusoga, 2010) It does not seem remiss to say that while these monuments continue to stand, they memorialise and justify the heinous crimes of the colonial era, and there has been a fair amount of public debate to that effect. Many of the curators interviewed for this project are actively involved in building a discourse around challenging the continued presence of these monuments.

[2] In her book “The Genocidal Gaze, from German South West Africa to the Third Reich” (Baer, 2018) Elizabeth Baer credits Hannah Arendt as the first to suggest continuity between German colonialism and the Holocaust in terms of racial ideology and methods of extermination in 1951. However, the discourse was truly expanded by Jurgen Zimmerer and Joachim Zeller in 2003 with the publication of “Genocide in German South-West Africa: The Colonial War of 1904-1908 and Its Aftermath”, republished in English in 2008. Other significant contributions are “The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism” by David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen, and “Namibia and Germany, Negotiating the Past” by Reinhart Kössler.