Ndapwa Alweendo is a freelance writer and editor. In this article she reflects on the Flashback exhibition of photographs by Tony Figueira from the time of independence in Namibia. Alweendo’s interests include Namibia’s feminist history, critical race theory, and public mental health. Alweendo is currently working with StArt Art Gallery to develop an open online archive of images from the time of independence in Namibia collected through an open submissions platform. If you would like to know more about it or contribute to it, please feel free to get in touch.
Namibia’s 30th independence celebrations on 21 March 2020 were cut short for most, as COVID-19 restrictions came into place with the banning of large gatherings. For many of us, including myself, the idea of remembrance is more sensitive than ever. As a young Namibian who has entered adulthood in step with the country, this has been a time for introspection. And as the country prepares to face the challenges of COVID-19, Namibia’s progress is under closer scrutiny than ever.
The Flashback exhibition captures a moment that I believe we often don’t investigate as a nation. It seems that Namibia, for all her attempts to look forward, consistently overlooks or misses opportunities to look back. Unlike for our neighbour in the south - the only other country that experienced the system of forced segregation at the same time as us - apartheid is something that does not seem to permeate the national consciousness, and has been commemorated in very few mediums.
This collective decision to fix our gaze to the future is only visible in hindsight. I see the gaping hole in our national memory because the silence around it is so loud. I see remnants of German colonial rule, and commemoration of that violent period in Namibia’s history. At times, it feels as if there is too much history to remember. Images like those captured by Tony Figueira in the Flashback exhibition provide a look into the jubilance and hope of Namibia’s entry to a more democratic era. However, apart from some notable figures - former heads of state, and current president Hage Geingob - many of the people in these images are anonymous, and have been commemorated without their identities.
This raises the complicated question of who drives Namibia’s collective history. Tony Figueira’s photography is an interesting example of an era captured by a white man living in Namibia, a person only able to document certain situations because of his various privileges. It seems odd, sometimes, that so much of our photographic history came from white privilege. For many Namibians, whose families did not have the luxury of cameras or access to events, opportunities to remember the time before 1990 come in bits and pieces, memories dropped into conversation by parents, uncles and aunts, and (for those lucky enough) grandparents. It’s as if we all have a tiny piece of the memory, but have not yet been able to put those pieces together.
Viewing the Flashback exhibition is ultimately bittersweet for me - I wonder what kind of images might have been part of my family’s archive had they been allowed to move as freely. Seeing this time period through my family’s eyes is in many ways a luxury.
Stories about life under apartheid from my family members are few and far between, and for good reason - there was very little time to grieve and process the trauma of that era before we jumped feet first into the so-called ‘post-independence’ era. What has been shared is often harrowing, and speaks once again to the missed opportunity for a sort of national grieving to process the indignities and atrocities of the time.
Tony Figueira’s photos challenge the idea that the liberation struggle is defined by moments of adversity and pain - they capture Namibians in moments of jubilation and excitement, and for that they are valuable. However, they are also a reminder that there are many different lenses through which to see this time, the jubilation and the pain, and that there are many Namibians whose memories have not yet been acknowledged as relevant. As we celebrate thirty years of independence, finding those stories and showcasing them should be a priority.
Ndapwa Alweendo can be reached at email@example.com.