In this interview Frieda Lühl speaks about the exhibitions she has facilitated at The Project Room, which is an independent workshop and gallery space, based in her house in Windhoek West. The Project Room has grown to host eleven exhibitions a year. Lühl speaks about the importance of sharing space and creating platforms like this one while also discussing the pros and cons to operating from home. There is a strong indication that The Project Room will grow and expand to fulfil some of the commercial potential of the arts in Windhoek.
While Lühl's concerns are quite different from those of curators working in the public sector there is a clear consensus throughout the interviews in this series that the arts are underfunded. It is for this reason that small spaces like this one are so important to the art community.
Frieda Lühl studied Jewellery design in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany and opened a jewellery studio in Cape Town in 2004. In 2012 she moved back to Namibia and opened a studio in Windhoek. In 2014 she opened the Project Room. The concept of The Project Room is to provide workshop areas accompanied by a gallery space. Artists are invited to showcase their work, experiment in different mediums and techniques or to teach and pass on their experience to others in the form of workshops. It also aims to invite artists and designers from outside Namibia to share their art, objects and passions. Lühl’s last solo exhibition of jewellery pieces, ‘Silhouette’, showed in Windhoek and Johannesburg in 2017. For more information about the Project Room you can visit the Facebook Page.
A space I'm willing to share
Helen Harris: Can you tell me a bit about the Project Room? Did you do any curatorial work before you started the Project Room?
Frieda Lühl: It started in List Street. You remember the two garages in List street? In the beginning I had the idea to have a space to share for workshops and then exhibitions came up very quickly as well. My previous flat had a double garage which we converted into a multi-purpose space for workshops, storage and exhibitions. Because the garages were full of termites, we could only have exhibitions up for two or three days. The rain also came in so it was a bit of a dicey space to actually show artwork. The exhibitions normally opened on a Friday, and then on Saturday and Sunday people could come as well. From then on, it grew. At the end of 2015, we moved to Windhoek West. The gallery space used to be the living room of the house. Which was perfect because it can be divided and closed off from the rest of the house completely. About curatorial work, I just recently attended the boot camp at the National Art Gallery. The main speakers were two curators from Lagos, who unfortunately could not get visas to enter the country. They sounded amazing, and I think they would have had so much to teach us. The boot camp was a great experience though. It made me very aware again, that what I have here is like a space to display work. This year there are a lot of solo exhibitions. I don't think it's really so much curated work since I am not bringing together work from different places. In a way I see the Project Room as a connection, between the artist and an audience.
HH: Do you think of the exhibitions you do as more collaborative rather than curated?
FL: They are not heavily curated. I mean, I do select who I do and do not exhibit. You had this as well, at StArt Gallery, you get approached by many people and maybe that's where my curation happens. If you really want to curate a show, it is a very time intensive process. What I do here is what my time allows me to do. What I do is time intensive as it is, but a curated show, that is a full-time job. You can't do it next to 100 other things, that doesn't work. Every now and then I do a themed group exhibition, which I guess comes closer to a curated show. But the last one we had was two years ago and there won't be one this year.
HH: Do you think you will do another one some time?
FL: I will do it again. Just the other day, the bee man, Roland zu Bentheim, came here and he wants to do a bee awareness thing and I thought that actually it might be interesting to see what artists do with that. He needs to first organise his stuff so we'll see what happens. There are quite a few ideas that I would like to do, it's just that time cuts things short. This year we have eleven exhibitions here. They are actually all solo exhibitions except for the last one which is a group student exhibition with my jewellery students and Jacqui van Vuuren’s ceramic students. So that will be more of a fun show in a way. I must honestly say I think this is the only way it can work because if it was more curated...
HH: Well you wouldn't be able to do eleven in a year.
FL: Exactly. So really it is a platform for artists to show their work, and for the public to buy their work. I don't like to call it a shop, but something in that direction. The artist brings their work, and with some exhibitions we do make a selection. Mateus Alfeus' exhibition was slightly different because I initiated the exhibition and invited him. I visited him every week to see how he was doing, check that he had materials. That was quite intense actually. But also, so rewarding when you see it all come together. And he did so well, I was so glad for him. I had initiated exhibitions before, like Stefan Eins’ 'Metamorphosim of Light', right at the beginning of the Project Room, and it didn't sell well. Then you have an artist, who has invested a massive amount of time and it hasn't paid off. After that I became a little more hesitant, not hesitant, but I guess, yes, a little bit hesitant to do it.
HH: The Project Room is interesting as well, because there is a commercial angle, but you're not expecting massive profits from it.
FL: Well that is how it started. I mean, seeing that I put more and more time into it, it obviously must, somehow, generate more. I'm pretty much a business person, I would like to see the Project Room as a platform where artists sell work and the public know they can buy local works. But I started it because I enjoy doing it a lot. From the poster to putting the whole thing together. It is also for my fun.
HH: So your own practice takes the form of jewellery design, printmaking and sculpture?
FL: Not really. Just jewellery now. I mean with the mobiles, I had four Americans here last year and they bought three out of the four I had. If there were more, they would have bought more. I was very inspired and I wanted to do more again, but life took over and I didn't manage to. ‘Silhouettes’ was the last time I did work on paper, print work. So Jewellery is basically what I do most constantly. But even then, I'm working on orders since my last solo exhibition in 2017. There's no new body of work on the horizon, that will happen at some stage. But I think now, with the Project Room taking so much of my time, I can't even give it a thought. Putting a jewellery exhibition together would mean like, five, six months of solid work concentrating on the exhibition only.
HH: Do you think that the discipline of jewellery making has informed the way that you work with artists?
FL: In a way yes, for example, with Mateus' exhibition when it came to pricing, we sat down and we did it exactly like I do my pricing. I think that system can work. I mean, obviously, if you become well known and established, then you figure out your own pricing structure, and you have something to compare it to. I think, as a young artist, starting off, then you can very well do it the way I do for my jewellery. But I do approach a lot of the curating work in the same structured way as I approach my job.
HH: You've exhibited artists from all over the world, from the USA and from Germany and from South Africa and Zimbabwe.
FL: Yeah, Kudzeni Katerere from Zimbabwe is the next exhibition, the first exhibition of his that was at the Project Room was organised by the Arts Association. We collaborated on that. But now the second exhibition is just with the Project Room. I must add though that he organised everything himself including transporting this ton of an exhibition to Windhoek.
HH: How do you think about those international connections?
FL: My approach has always been to grab opportunities. If an artist from somewhere else is in the country I ask them to do a workshop. I want to make sure they stay and share something with us. Like Anne Lacheiner-Kuhn’s exhibition in the beginning of the year. She was in Windhoek to sell her work at Christmas in July at the Craft Centre, which really is just a shop, and she mentioned that she would like to have an exhibition. Then it all happened within two weeks. Which you can only do with somebody like Anna, because she's so prepared.
HH: I think that it's interesting how we all play with time, it's come up with the other curators I've talked to as well. There are the ideal conditions and an ideal amount of time, and then there's the reality and sometimes an exhibition happens in two weeks.
FL: Ya, in between, it happens. Like, now the UNAM students approached me, they are looking for an exhibition, for a project. Something like this, if we can put it in there, I definitely would love to do this. It is getting better though, since you guys closed the physical space of StArt Art Gallery, there has been so much pressure on the Project Room. I'm telling everybody to please open a gallery. An independent gallery. I think it's the economy also which means that people are looking for small spaces. The National Art Gallery is a huge space and it takes a lot of work and needs a lot of investment and time and at the moment people are struggling. So that makes the Project Room very sought after this year. Also, Ndeenda Shivute was away last year so people lost a lot of trust in the National Art Gallery. Now Ndeenda has to put the pieces together again. Which she is doing very well, she’s a natural at that.
In terms of a global art community, I’m not sure. With the internet nowadays, inspiration is on your computer, all you need is data, basically. At the Owela Festival I attended this workshop with a guy called Bernard Akoi-Jackson from Ghana. It was just me, Elize van Huyssteen, two people from the College of the Arts, one other person from the festival from Zimbabwe and Papa Shikongeni and Actofel Iilovu popped in and out when they had time. Bernard was amazing and I just don't understand why more people weren't there. Maybe the programme was a bit chaotic, but somehow I think there's not much interest to connect to this kind of thing.
HH: Do you think it might be because of a mistrust of the outside world?
FL: I might think that's the case if somebody comes from Europe, or Germany specifically. But if somebody comes from Ghana, I don't think it is that.
HH: I think a lot of people just don't know that they can access these spaces. It comes down to communication and transformation.
FL: It's very possible. But even in November last year, with Operation Odalate Naiteke which happened in different venues and in Katutura mostly, even there, there were a lot of the usual crowd, but, I somehow have the feeling art is not relevant here. It's got nothing to do with art. People are struggling at the moment in a way that means art is not on their minds at all. And affording art? There are many, many, many, many other things before you can think about affording art. I think for most people it really is at the bottom of the list. I also think that as Namibians we are not awfully proud of our fellow Namibians when they achieve something. People don't allow for that space of, celebrating and being proud or each other. I don't know. We have this runner, Johanna, she's like flying in and out of this country winning one gold medal after the next and nobody knows about it. Why is that? There are many, many, many examples, and I do not understand. Is it that people are so much involved in their own struggle? It's a hard thing to analyse. But sometimes I just wish we were prouder of people.
HH: How does your curatorial practice function in relation to funding? I mean, is it fully self-sufficient or do you apply for funding?
FL: I submitted two proposals for funding. One was to fund two exhibitions a year, like the one I did with Mateus. That would have allowed the Project Room to provide everything from start to finish, from taxi money to materials. That one didn't come through. I had a second proposal for Inspiration Tables, to make a huge 30 square meter stand, where artists could work and display at the same time, like a big, busy, open studio. That one came through but now Inspiration Tables is not happening anymore. Instead the Project Room, in collaboration with Arts Association, will host an Arts in Action day in November, a kind of pop up exhibition in the middle of town on Independence Avenue.
HH: Was that funding from the Namibian Arts Council?
FL: Yeah. On the other hand, I feel, a little bit like The Project Room is a way for me to give back, to provide a space like this. If I can, I would like to keep it that way. I know I will not always be able to. And especially if I want to get another person in or something and share this thing, then this might definitely change. I think I also suck at writing proposals. Laura Diaz helped me greatly with this one. Anyways, I think it's just a thing you have to practice actually.
HH: Yes, sometimes if feels like mind reading.
FL: Anyways, I have already moved all the writing for The Project Room to Marita van Rooyen. Because writing is really time consuming for me and it doesn't come easily at all.
HH: Does she interview the artist and then write about them for the exhibitions?
FL: Basically we do an email interview, and they answer some questions and then she phones them as well. Or if we want to do one on Paul Kiddo then we have to actually go there and do that.
HH: Are you going to have an exhibition of his work?
FL: No, the articles are mostly for the Flamingo magazine [an on-flight magazine for Namibian Airways]. Let's see how long this arrangement lasts. As soon as they lose the contract it will end. I've been doing this for over a year know, and for the first time, two people came to the Project Room because of the articles in the Flamingo. One of them bought a painting. He's living in Namibia, but he saw the article when he was flying back in. So, for the first time it looks like it might pay off.
HH: Yeah. Cool. Could you talk a little bit about what it's like to have the Project Room in your own home? There's a bit of a history of galleries in domestic spaces in Namibia.
FL: That's true, there was Kenzia and The Loft, although I think that wasn't in somebody's house.
HH: It must be quite challenging?
FL: It's not really, I mean, even the workshops, I don't mind sharing the space. There's a long table in my kitchen for a reason. I think the only reason I might change eventually is that for some people it is a hurdle to step into this private space. For some people it feels too private in a way. But I don't mind. Also at some stage it will probably deserves a more public space. My dogs sometimes find it challenging, but not me. My neighbours could shut me down at any stage. Especially now that I have an opening every month, whereas before it was only every two months. There are also events in between now. We had a panel discussion with Philip Lühl, Tanya Stroh and Jacques Mushaandja. Then yesterday we had the artists walk about, last week Wiebke Volkmann had a discussion. It is becoming very full so I try to be very nice to my neighbours. The thing is, doing it like this from home, with a space that doesn't cost me every month, allows it to keep going. Although to be fair, I am paying a bond. Anyway, let's see, there is potential to grow this thing.
HH: What role do you see yourself playing as a curator, is it separate from the role you play as an artist or a designer?
FL: I still feel extremely uncomfortable with this title, curator, since I never really studied it, I just happen to have a space that I'm willing to share. But yeah, especially this year, with so many more exhibitions, I really had to have a calendar, and organise things. It's the same with the title artist. I don't feel much like an artist. I think I'm more of a technical person which is why I enjoy making prints.
HH: So do you think about curating in the same way, is it very technical for you?
FL: I guess it is in a way. When I did the curatorial bootcamp now I realised, again, that actually this could be so much more, but I don't have the time to put into it, to really curate an exhibition. I would love to do a hanging sculpture exhibition. So that would be one thing, but that's a technical approach, a technical concept, I guess?
HH: I think that's a valid approach. I mean, we don't need fewer approaches in the world. What about the future?
FL: For the Project Room, in the future, I see, maybe a collaboration with somebody and then eventually moving it out of this space. If finances allow it, if we can generate that kind of money, that you can sustain somebody working full time for it. I would still like to keep doing my jewellery work because I enjoy doing it. For Namibia, for the art scene I hope there will be more confidence generated. Like with the Owela Festival, it was really refreshing. I hope the economic crisis will find an end eventually, because the entire market in general is very zäh [German for sticky/tough/stiff] at the moment. At the moment, I'm at a point with The Project Room that it has reached a size where I can no longer do it justice alone.