Decolonising space - Natache Iilonga (2019)

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 in this series 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.

Natache Iilonga graduated with a Masters of Technology in Architectural Technology (Professional), in 2017, from the Graduate School of Architecture University of Johannesburg in South Africa. She also holds a Bachelors in Architectural Studies from the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. Iilonga is currently an Architect-in-Training at Nina Maritz Architects. Iilonga is an active member of the ‘Decolonising Space’ group; co-organising events and public interventions with a focus on critical ideas around access to land, socio-spatial decolonisation, gender and identity.

Natache Iilonga

Decolonising space

HH: For the other interviews in this series I started by asking people to tell me about a specific project in relation to their curatorial practice. But you don't really think of yourself as a curator?

NI: I think when you say the word curator the first thing that jumps to mind is the museum person, you know, the white box. Even though just literally, like, a few minutes ago, I was busy curating my own Instagram. So I think that's why I had a mini-panic because I was like, what? I don’t have a museum. Which is silly. But that is honestly where my mind went to first. But if you are talking in terms of a person who facilitates something, or someone who acts as a catalyst for public engagement? Then I would say, yes.

HH: So, if we think of your work in those terms, then perhaps you could talk about the two groups you are part of?

NI: Well, technically, it's one group. It's the Decolonising Space group. Members of the group get together to help facilitate or put together projects like the Land Pavilion, or critical debates and discussions around specific socio-spatial topics. We branch out like that. I like to say we, but honestly, we're not that formal. It’s really just a big WhatsApp group that argues, debates and is cognisant of the state of our lives currently.

HH: And you don’t define yourselves as a collective?

NI: What is a collective?

HH: I suppose the label 'collective' is part of the jargon of the artworld, and since your background is in architecture it might not be how you self-define. But when you say that you are a group of people who haven't quite defined themselves yet, I immediately think, that that sounds a bit like a collective.

NI: Interesting. Yeah.

HH: And how many of you make up the group?

NI: On the group? I'm not sure how many, more than 10, but less than 30. Let me double check. People come and go… Okay so there are 26 of us, for now.

HH: Okay. Cool. So that WhatsApp group is the space that you work in and start conceptualising things in, and from there different people come together to organise projects?

NI: Yeah. The group consists of people with quite varied backgrounds. A lot of us are architects, and architecture students, town planning students from NUST, some lecturers, artists, some architects that are researchers, researchers from UNAM and NUST, activists, cross-border researchers and creatives and law graduates. Then there's Jacques, he's critically radical. Then there are also the arts students from the College of the Arts and JMAC as well. So, it's really just a mixed crew. Which is quite nice, because when it comes to debating around social issues, it's good to see the different angles that people come from. Oh, we also have people from NHAG, you know, the Namibia Housing Action Group who work with the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia on cases of informality and land ownership.

HH: That's a great acronym.

NI: NHAG? Ya, I love it.

HH: And the projects that you've done have been the Land Pavilion and working with the Owela festival? Has there been anything else?

NI: No, the group only really started last year in February or March. The Land Pavilion happened about halfway through last year. It started with the architecture students, wanting to explore the ‘art’ side of architecture or space, rather. Architecture loves to boast that it is a blend of engineering and art, but in reality it seems that most architects don’t really care about art. So, we had an informal session with some of the students and decided that we would try and engage with fellow artists and see what we could do with Windhoek’s blank public space. We then approached funders and creative professionals like Turipamwe Design and Bold Creations, and arts institutions for assistance and guidance. That's where the Land Pavilion started. We then came up with five ambitious pavilions. Namely; Public Projections, Paper Pavilion, The Great Divide, Urban Infill, Afro-futurism. The projects have run into this year now too albeit with a change of plans.

HH: So those five ambitious pavilions, did they happen?

NI: Half of them happened. Two happened last year, or you could say one and a half, because the second one was controversial, it was the one in Soweto Market [a commercial centre located in Katutura] and the police and City of Windhoek shut us down on the second day. One of the reasons given was that we had written the word 'Land' on the Paper Pavilion structure and that constituted ‘advertising’, which according to the police was illegal, because we didn't have an advertising licence.

HH: That sounds like a bit of a technicality.

NI: Yes, but since there is no policy for art in public space, we had ended up trying to take the route of renting the space. Since we were students, though, a City of Windhoek representative had said we didn’t have to pay for rent; but it turned out that they hadn’t informed the police department either.

HH: Who were you liaising with?

NI: The City of Windhoek.

HH: So, you had gone through the official channels? And despite that you were asked to leave. Did you get the impression that the police were acting on their own volition?

NI: Well we had submitted our proposals well in advance for the project to take place in October/November. They just didn't seem to care, especially the higher ups, no one got back to us apart from the team at customer care who advised us where they could. The higher departments sent us from person to person to person to person. So we ended up using the loophole of renting the public space. We did inform them obviously, because you still must go to them to get permission. But they didn't update the police department on that particular installation. Even though the police department were in possession of our overall initial proposal.

HH: And the police thought you were squatting?

NI: Yeah. What brought the police to the site was that somebody called in, saying that people were building a shack at Soweto Market. That's why they showed up and things escalated. So I think it would have all gone smoothly if that one person hadn't called in, assuming it was a shack. But it wasn't, it was a Paper Pavilion. The structure was built out of timber, but the intention was to suspend, thousands of papers from the rafters and purlins. When the police came, they said they hadn’t been notified about the intervention happening and then the people who had given us permission at City of Windhoek seemed to panic, or something, and next thing we know, after much back and forth communication between us, City of Windhoek and the Police, we had to take it down by 4 pm. So, we modified it and did it again this year, but this time, we used the Ministry of Justice pavement space in front of their building in town.

HH: That's such a pity. So you were basically forced out of Katutura.

NI: Yeah, basically. But it's also interesting because through this process we learned that all public areas are administered or owned by the City of Windhoek, unless it's privately owned. Which means that no matter what art you are doing, you still have to go through them. And the CEO has to sign it off, but if he doesn't care for the project, it's not going to get signed off, right? And the interesting thing about the Ministry of Justice is that they own the pavement space in front of their building. And they are very progressive and open to students using the space and doing things with it. So that's where we did our first Pavilion last year. We projected on the Ministry of Justice building; we had a week long screening. I was so happy that they were so kind about this because we wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. City of Windhoek were just not going to let us access the public spaces unless we were some big organisation with a budget.

HH: People talk endlessly about there not being enough public art in Namibia. In Windhoek specifically, there are just very clear barriers in place that prevent projects like this from happening.

NI: The public policy on arts has been in the works for years now, you know, and even the person that's supposed deal with these things at City of Windhoek is incredibly unhelpful. I honestly don't know why she's employed if she holds no power on matters of art and space which concern her department. It’s a bottleneck.

HH: You don't get the feeling that she's got 500 other things to do, and no one cares about the arts?

NI: Well she is the cultural officer. So it's literally her job to care about everything related to arts or creative culture. Spatial creative interventions by youths are rare in this country yet such opportunities get left to die when they present themselves. Although, it is fair to say that there is only so much she can do if the higher ups don’t care either.

HH: So I suppose she probably gives permission for the Wika Parade to close roads and go through the centre of town every year?

NI: The one where they throw sweets at children and adults? I would think so. Not too sure. I guess if it's an event that big and the police are informed and City of Windhoek likes it, it's fine. But an arts installation that occupies space for a small amount of time, falls in between blurred lines of legal and illegal, and it was heart-breaking, because she basically said ‘guys there's nothing I can do about this, I can't help’. Since there's no arts policy there’s nothing she can reference in relation to this kind of project.

HH: And the third Pavilion?

NI: It's not on social media yet, we still need to sort that out. The third Pavilion was meant to be The Great Divide, a series of sculptures that represented Namibian people that would essentially move through the city occupying public space at different sites each day. But then suddenly, an opportunity came up, in collaboration with the Shack Dwellers Federation, who had access to public space in Gobabis. We were advocating for the use of public space in interesting and progressive ways but were constantly coming across all these blockages and barriers in Windhoek, so we decided to take the opportunity to spread out to the rest of the country.

We took it to Gobabis to the Freedom Square settlement in Epako. And luckily the councillors there are very open-minded as well. They seemed to genuinely want to enrich their communities. There we built a community meeting structure, and a playground that runs around that structure, for the Freedom Square community to use. Hopefully, we'll be able to keep going back and continue working on the remaining ideas with that neighbourhood.

Yeah, so I think the Land Pavilion started in one place and then transformed into something quite impactful. We were scared because we had put ourselves out there and there was a lot of public expectation. But we learned quite quickly to adapt to the situation at hand while still trying to stay true to your original concepts.

Then for the Owela festival this year it was either Jacques or Nelago who approached us. The arts community had started seeing us as radical installation artists, which is weird, because at the time there were very few actual artists in the group. But we ended up doing ‘The Production of Gendered Space[s]: City Tour’ for the Owela festival, exploring gendered public, invisible and in-between spaces within Windhoek. So again, taking architectural spatial exploration and combining it with an attempt at artistic expression, informed by critical socio-spatial observation and research. Windhoek was designed by men. Windhoek and its hot springs were fought over by men. 99% of our street names are male.

HH: You know I actually can’t think of a single female street name off the top of my head.

NI: That's the thing. So, part of the tour was driving our audience between sites, from one female street to another one, no matter how far apart the street names are because the point was to make the spatiality of gender in our city obvious.

HH: Which streets were they?

NI: Florence Nightingale street in Windhoek West and Kakurukadhi Mungunda street in G-Block area, Katutura. So, the first one is in the city centre and the second one is in Tura.