Life Goes On - Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja (2019)

Updated: Apr 4, 2020

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. Elsewhere in these interviews Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja is also called Jacques.

(cover portrait of Mushaandja by Julian Salinas)

Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja

[Elsewhere in these interviews Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja is also called Jacques.]

Life goes on

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.

'The Life Goes On' by Vilho Nuumbala

HH: That’s a great statement. You know, on the one hand, it's very pessimistic. Something terrible has happened.

NM: Yes

HH: But it's also, really optimistic, because, you know, life goes on.

NM: It's where we don't belong, right?

HH: Yeah.

'The Life Goes On' by Vilho Nuumbala

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.’

Maspara Panstula performing at UN Plaza / Operation Odalate Naiteke 2018. Photo credit: Neige Moongo

HH: From what you were saying earlier it seems like Odelate 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.