In Actofel Ilovu’s work the personal meets the political through the confluence of his materials and subject matter. Ilovu’s choice of materials is largely informed by his personal history, while his subject matter responds directly to his observation of contemporary Namibian society. These elements are brought together in his third solo exhibition titled Onlooker and presented at The Project Room.
For the last four years nuts from the Marula tree have featured prominently in Ilovu’s work. These huge trees are indigenous to Southern Africa and people harvest their fruit, bark, roots and leaves for a variety of uses. Once extracted from the fruit the inner kernel of the nut is used to make oil, and the remaining husk is often used for firewood. It is the shape of this husk that appears over and over again in Ilovu’s latest body of work. After the kernels are extracted the husk of the nut is left with two or three holes which are called omesho (eyes) in Oshiwambo. In Ilovu’s work these holes sit in small pensive faces, depicted in linocuts, smoke, charcoal and pigment on paper.
“I work with many different materials but the ones that I keep coming back to are the ones that have played a major role in my life. Specifically materials that relate to fire”, the artist says. When he was a child Ilovu sustained severe burns in a house fire and spent many months recovering in hospital. “Thinking of the marks that were left on my body I was very ashamed, but as I grew older I fell in love with them, which is why I like working with anything that has to do with fire. In a way I feel like I am taking revenge on the memory of the pain I suffered, but I am also making peace with what the fire left behind – the smoke, ashes and charcoal. I draw much of my inspiration for the types of marks I make from my own scars.”
Having initially trained as a printmaker, the meticulously controlled, graphic qualities of his work come into contrast with the very unpredictable results of working with fire and smoke. This duality produces a careful balance of elements: “When I use smoke in my practice I’m opening up a conversation with fire and trying to control the results. Practically speaking it’s hard to achieve this control. A small breeze can change the marks completely and in that way my work also opens up to chance.”
Marula oil has many useful qualities and in the aftermath of the fire the oil was applied to Ilovu’s skin to aid the healing process. “The nuts are part of an important cycle because they produce oil and can be used for firewood which burns particularly well. The burned nuts produce charcoal and a fine white ash which I also use in my work. In this way the motif of the nut naturally started becoming part of my work. The strong resemblance of the nut to eyes and a face gave me a cast of characters to work with. In each artwork the nut stands in for different people: politicians, women striving for change, vulnerable children, protesters beaten by police or flood victims from the north. Like a mask, the nut allows me to tell stories that both are or are not my own to tell.”
While all of the stories that Ilovu tells through his art are different and specific to the people who lived them, the marula nut remains a constant in his iterative reflections on social injustice. Ilovu’s keen observation of the people around him and local news form the basis of his research and in this way he sees himself following in the footsteps of John Muafangejo, observing the world around him and drawing it into his work to make what are often subtle and poignant observations.
Ilovu graduated from the College of the Arts in 2010 and received his higher diploma in visual art and advertising from the University of Namibia in 2016. In 2011 he held his first solo exhibition at the Franco Namibian Cultural Centre, titled Bring in the light, and in 2014 his second solo exhibition Bring in the shade was shown in the same gallery. Ilovu is an integral part of the Namibian art community. He works as a project manager, curator and artist. Onlooker is on show at The Project Room in Windhoek until the 20th of May.
Helen Harris – StArt Art Gallery