Something needed to change - Elize van Huyssteen (2019)

Much of this 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 focused 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 contends with and melds two very different registers, one that sits in the past and another that looks to the future.

Elize van Huyssteen was born in South Africa, and now lives and works in Windhoek. Van Huyssteen holds an honours degree in Library Studies from the University of North West in South Africa. She was the curator at the Namibian Arts Association from 2007 - 2019. In that role Van Huyssteen was responsible for the keeping of a large collection comprising more than 1400 artworks as well as all research and grant proposal writing. She also ran the projects and programmes of the organization. Van Huyssteen is currently studying towards a Bachelor of Arts in Art History at the University of South Africa, Pretoria.

Elize van Huyssteen

Something needed to change

HH: Would you like to speak a little bit about the 2018 Muafangejo Season? It was quite a big project?

EvH: Yes, I still yearn back to the days when we could make exhibition catalogues and we had a longer time to do research, but these days, it's not the same. Last year was particularly difficult because I was mostly alone. I had Muafangejo Season on my annual programme but there was just no time to prepare for it. Where we might have had three months in the past to prepare, I literally had one month and I found it particularly difficult, I felt very lonely.

HH: Because you used to organise it with Jacques, and he had left the John Muafangejo Art Centre?

EvH: Yes. And you guys at National Art Gallery, Ndeenda had also left to study in Cape Town. I just thought, it is Muafangejo’s birthday, someone needs to celebrate, let me do it. So I ventured out on my own, trying to reinterpret what the Season of Muafangejo could mean for me, because I don't come from a performance art background or have an intellectual approach. I have a more hands-on practical approach. I started to approach filmmakers, dancers, performance artist, people from other fields who I wouldn’t normally approach along with visual artists. I found it extremely difficult. I got very few responses. I could sense that there was some form of mistrust. So I hunted every individual down and made meetings with them here. In the meetings I would literally go back to the history, take out the books and discuss the details of Muafangejo's life. The idea was to get new perspectives on his work, a female perspective, a decolonial perspective, etc. We look up to Muafangejo today and we honour him, but he was also colonised.

HH: He lived under South African colonial rule?

EvH: Yes, exactly. But since I didn't have Jacques to refer to, to ask him how I should go about it, I focussed on giving the information to the artist and letting them respond to it. Julia Hango was particularly interesting to me. She looked at one artwork by Muafangejo, about when his mother passed away. At the time because of Apartheid and border control he was not allowed to go to her or to go to the funeral. Julia Hango delved into the emotions and how that must have felt for him, which I thought was very beautiful, a fresh and much softer approach. At the same time though, she also looked deeply into his mother's life, at her role as a mother, how she supported and inspired him. On the other hand she also looked at the other side of being a female, being seen as a slut, as a whore as, the negative in our society by this very patriarchal system that Muafangejo was portraying and was born into and that we still have all around us. So she went out there to directly attack the patriarchy in the culture. And I thought, better her than me. But it was wonderful. I really liked it. I could see the shock waves that went through people who were there.

HH: There was quite a strong reaction to her work?

EvH: She created a performance piece around freeing the female body, she took off all her clothes, and she went through a ritual where she used blood, and ritualistic elements and symbols that we usually connect to culture and spirituality. She brought those elements in, in order to shock them. If she had been a man then perhaps, they would have viewed it differently. She was not ashamed, and she showed her body with full confidence to the audience. Some people who view the culture and the tradition as sacred, saw her performance as sacrilege. It was the same for the Ministry. The next day, we received a phone call from the Ministry of Education, Art & Culture saying that it was inappropriate.

HH: I suppose those are the obvious people to react, you know, the older male artists, the patriarchal figures, the Ministry of Culture. I guess it was sort of inevitable that there would be that reaction. Did you know that when you were curating it?

EvH: No, I didn't. I had some of her images printed for the exhibition, they were quite explicit but seemed harmless to me. She didn't tell me that she wanted to do a performance, so I wasn't really prepared. Shortly before the opening, she said she was coming and that she would like to do a performance piece. I thought it would be wonderful to have a live performance on the night of the opening. I had actually asked other performers if they could do something for the opening night, and none of them were available.

HH: Do you mind talking about how you responded to the criticism? Did they hold the Namibian Arts Association accountable for Julia's performance?

EvH: In the panel discussions that we had the next week, the reaction came out because representatives from the JMAC board were there and they were funders, so they were very upset.

HH: JMAC also funded it?

EvH: Yes, the artists fees were quite high, I hadn't realised how large the cost would be because I was working with artists from different disciplines who expected to be paid. I had to look for money and JMAC was the obvious choice. They put money towards the workshops that took place. I think that was also a bit different to what Jacques would have done. I still wanted to have the hand of the old school artists, like Ndasuunje Shikongeni and Nangombe Kapanda, those who follow in the legacy of Muafangejo. So, we put up the work from those workshops in the exhibition as well. Showing what printmaking can look like now and also at the same time questioning whether you have to print like Muafangejo to be successful or to honour him. So, in a way also being critical of what we have so much of. The board members of JMAC were very appalled.

I'll sketch it for you quickly. There is the director of the Institution behind the podium, on the stage and one other speaker, and I'm supposed to be the third speaker, but now I'm busy organising other things at the back. There was also a social media influencer on stage who we had invited in the hopes of attracting her following. In retrospect maybe we were lucky they didn't come, since Julia was quite vulnerable during her performance and a larger crowd might have been dangerous. Anyway, the three of them were on stage facing the audience and Julia came up behind them, totally naked and bent over to adjust the sound for her performance later. The three speakers were all totally unaware of it. I was also oblivious and came on later to introduce her performance.

HH: But there was no danger to Julia during the performance?

EvH: No, no physical violence, but many people took selfies and photos, which was my mistake. I should have said no photo's before it started. The Institution loved it, they said it was just the boost they needed.

HH: These tensions are really interesting, right? The Franco Namibian Cultural Centre supporting the artist while the local establishment react so negatively.

EvH: As always, it's our conservatism that makes us suffer.

HH: Do you think that there might be any long-term repercussions for the Arts Association, for funding maybe?

EvH: I hope not. I think people have forgotten and JMAC no longer exists in the same way now, its board has been disbanded and it will fall under the National Art Gallery. I don't think it's going to be a problem.

HH: It's interesting how there's this uproar of emotion and then it kind of gets forgotten.

EvH: Yeah. I don't know how many people remember the event. But one of the ex-board members, who couldn't be there, heard about it and told me that I must have done something right, he was very proud of me.

HH: In my interview with Jacques, he also mentioned it. He seemed to be happy that the season had gone ahead without him. I guess when you leave an institution you don't know whether your projects will continue to live without you or not.

EvH: Yeah, I mean it's basically my take on it. It's not like I knew how to do it his way.

HH: That's also the way things go, curators bring their own voice to different projects.

EvH: The other artist I found very interesting in this project was Vilho Nuumbala. He submitted five black and white images. They were mind blowing to me. One of the images was of a billboard, with a white grandma on it, advertising the Swakopmund retirement village and I looked at this thing for so long. I could understand all the other work and for the life of me I could not understand what he was trying to say with this one. I just didn't get it and I had to ask him what the photograph was about. I could see how the others were linked to our contemporary problems with poverty, how the situation hasn't really changed for many people, too many children are sleeping under bridges. They linked to how we struggle with the integration between the generations and between white and black people. He said to me; ‘It's because you're so privileged you just can't see what it means to be a white Grandma, you have security, you can have a retirement, there is a whole village created for you where you can go and stay, also how they sell it, it's clearly for white people.’

HH: Absolutely. It's not a mistake that it's a white grandmother on that billboard. They know exactly who has the money in Namibia to pay for end of life luxury.

EvH: So that was very enlightening for me. I was so grateful that he helped me. As the curator I obviously have to be able to speak about the work, but I also let him explain his work when we did the walk about. The French ambassador was initially unimpressed with Muafangejo's work, she said it was very poor quality, but she did like Vilho's photographs. So that was interesting to me.

Then we had two Namibian filmmakers come in to screen their films and also to talk about them.

HH: When they spoke, did they all relate it back to Muafangejo's work?

EvH: Yes, one of the prints that I had selected for the exhibition was, 'Mother and Child'. I had asked the artists to respond to anything that grabbed them. He used a film about a sex worker, and her life as a mother, with a child. In speaking back to the works, we managed to make it very contemporary.

HH: It sounds like that was a really successful way to interact with these historic objects, which is what they become when they enter a collection. Were all of the pieces on show from the Arts Association collection?

EvH: Yes.

HH: You mentioned that you didn't have funding to do a catalogue, so it existed very much in that moment. Is there a way for people to access the works and dialogue from the season now that it's over?

EvH: No, because, again, lack of staffing. I took photographs, when I could, but we didn't manage to film it, which would probably have been the better way to do it.

HH: I think people don't realise that funding not only enables you to do a project, but it also allows a project to have a life afterwards. Could speak a bit more about funding?

EvH: Yes, exactly. Because right now, when I do my budgets, I put in money for a catalogue, but that's the first thing to be cut. They are seen as unnecessary luxuries. They are extremely expensive. Now that Actofel Iilovu is working with me I hope to do more. For the ‘Textiles and Textures’ exhibition, I asked him to photograph everything so that we can at least make an e-catalogue for it. Whether they are printed or not, so that there is a record and archive.

HH: What was it like working with artists and producers from other disciplines?

EvH: I had to prove myself to them. I realised that it was like how I had to learn how to work with the photographers back in the day, all their specific requirements. It was a learning curve. I ended up involving a curator for the films, he didn't want me to be involved in choosing films. None of the filmmakers would speak to me without him. It's how they protect their industry. I can understand it because people don't respect their work, they always want to show the films for free. I had to really work through that process and learn how to deal with filmmakers.

HH: Did the audience pay to watch the films?

EvH: No, entrance was free. One of the biggest difficulties was organising that space, it had become very problematic over the years because it's a multifunctional, multipurpose space and they hold events in the middle of exhibitions sometimes. Last year they held an auction in the middle of Julia Hango's exhibition and removed some of her more sensitive works. She was furious. For Muafangejo Season I spoke to the director and insisted that we sign a contract for a two-week exhibition without interruption. That was the agreement.

HH: The FNCC is o