Talking to 2021

In ‘Talking to 2021’, StArt Art Gallery Curators Helen Harris and Gina Figueira discuss 2020 and the year to come.

Helen Harris: Last year truly barreled on by. Thinking back to when we wrote the first edition of these pieces; “Talking to 2020”, it is a little hard to connect the dots between then and now. I wrote then that I felt like the name StArt still made sense, since we found ourselves at the start of something new. This year I don’t feel that way at all. We are firmly in the middle of things. While the name StArt is a good reminder to stay on our toes it also is a little incongruous with all that we are carrying right now. For instance projects like the Sister Namibia Artists activations and The Everyday Archive will continue to develop and grow this year alongside various other commitments.

We are of course also firmly in the middle of a pandemic. Covid-19 will continue to permeate our lives for the foreseeable future. While wealthy countries gear up to vaccinate their entire populations, Namibia, like most African countries, still doesn’t know when the vaccine will be widely available, if ever. Although this feeling of being temporarily out of sync with other countries and continents is a familiar state of affairs the consequences are no less horrific.

Gina Figueira: Luckily it has not yet prevented us from doing our work, which we are likely to keep doing predominantly online. Online exhibitions, projects, talks, articles and sales. As with most galleries worldwide, we have come to rely more heavily on the virtual art world. We’ve had to increase our capacity for this kind of work and be innovative in order to keep up with the hugely competitive nature of digital spaces. While online art talks and the like have proven to get StArt’s artists in front of more international collectors, it does sometimes feel like the vast potential of an online audience is also a bit of a void. These online spaces have an imagined audience that is also temporally out of sync with the work we do. Maybe the work will only be seen weeks, months or years later, or perhaps in a different time zone.

HH: Being online has also made us think critically about accessibility. While we have enjoyed a bigger audience of people from outside Windhoek we also know that many people do not enjoy stable internet connections or personal computers. We are wary of boasting better accessibility while at the same time excluding everyone who is not in an economic position to join us online.

We have also started taking on projects that emphasise the value of our time and labour as well as that of the artists we work with, rather than the monetary value of art-objects. I do wonder whether we are coming to an impasse, trying to blend two worlds of work into one. Like oil and water. On the other hand, the circumstances under which we work in Namibia are perhaps best served by this blended approach. It might not only be appropriate to our circumstances but also entirely necessary to insure the survival of the gallery and the artists whose work we support. 

GF: Absolutely. I like the way you describe it as a ‘blended’ way of working and I think ultimately it allows us to be sustainable. In this way we are able to plan for solo and group exhibitions and small pop-up events as well as write more for our online platform, building up the available archive of information about Namibian art. If we are careful about it, this work can very neatly complement the independent curatorial work we have done, and continue doing with projects like curating the  “From where do we speak?” exhibition at the end of last year.

HH: Of course this blended model does stretch us rather thin in some ways. Being a team of only two, might not be enough in the coming months and years. The continuous need to innovate, start and restart, along-side the uncertainty of the covid-19 pandemic and inevitable economic fallout mean that no matter how much forward planning we do this will also always need to be accompanied by a patient ‘wait and see’ attitude. This attitude lets us move quickly and be responsive to our changing environment. 

GF: Exactly, there is joy to be found in both modes of working. Uncertainty is the baseline from which we currently operate, alongside cautious optimism. There is so much to celebrate from last year and even more to look forward to in 2021. It was incredible to see conversations about colonialism take centre stage with the ‘Curt Farewell’ protests and other public outcries in 2020. It was equally gratifying to see and participate in the marches and activism around gendered violence. I really hope that momentum around these issues isn’t lost. StArt will of course continue working with artists who think about and make work relating to these issues.