Southwest Africa (Namibia) is a vast, sun-bleached land. The dry riverbeds, freckled with small bushes, wander wistfully through plains of tall yellow grass, thorn trees and scrub. The huge domed sky changes mood from tired blues to resentful yellows.
These are the words chosen by Olga Levinson to start the chapter “A New Life in Africa” in her exhaustive book on the life and work of the German-born Namibian painter Adolph Jentsch (1888 – 1977). She could as well have been describing any one of Jentsch’s many landscape paintings created in the country that was to be “home” for the rest of his life, some of which now form part of the Arts Association Heritage Trust collection archive of the Namibian Arts Association (NAA).
Archives are important. Not least because they tell stories. They also increase our sense of identity and understanding of cultures. They can even ensure justice. The archive of historical and contemporary Namibian artworks and artefacts, held by the NAA in trust, is the focal point for an exciting exhibition of new artworks being exhibited in Cape Town by a group of emerging and established Namibian artists. Conceptualised and curated by artist Jo Rogge, and facilitated by The Project Room Namibia, the exhibition at the Association for Visual Arts (AVA) opens in March, coinciding with the month in which Namibia celebrates its independence.
The exhibition Unmourned Bodies takes a multifaceted approach to showcase the work and talent of Namibian artists to a new audience in South Africa.
Historically, the venue of this exhibition has close ties to the development of art in Namibia. With the concerted efforts of some individuals, the Arts Association of South West Africa (AASWA), based in the capital city Windhoek, was established as a branch of the South African Arts Association (SAAA) in 1948. In the Namibia of the time, considered a remote “5th province of South Africa”, almost all of the important local artists were of German extraction, notably men like Adolph Jentsch and Fritz Krampe. One year later, the first official exhibition at the Cape Town premises of the SAAA included 61 paintings and 500 objects from Namibia, divided into what was called the “White” section – including painters Axel Eriksson, Adolph Jentsch, Otto Schröder and Joachim Voigts, among others – and the “Native” section, described as being mostly “handcrafts”.
It is in this regard that the current exhibition, while paying homage to the historical links between the two associations, seeks to redress the colonial presentation of Namibian cultural production through inclusion, and to highlight the contemporary blurring of art and crafts, by selecting artists that work with non-traditional materials. These artists were invited to visit the archive of the NAA, to select a work from the collection that personally resonated with them, and to recreate a unique artwork of their own in response, with some interesting and surprising results.
Archives are important. Not least because they tell stories. They also increase our sense of identity and understanding of cultures.
For some, this was their first visit. Until fairly recently considered a “Whites Only” place, the archive is a contentious space, further thrown into sharp relief with the current debate on the repatriation of looted and stolen artefacts during Germany’s colonial rule of the country. The stated aim of the permanent return of these objects to Namibia is to “support our Namibian partners in reconstructing the history of their country”.
Established artists Tuli Mekondjo and Stephané Conradie, each with their accomplished research-based creative practices firmly rooted in their respective cultural and traditional backgrounds, have chosen objects from the collection on which to base their new work for this exhibition.
Talented designers Tangeni Kambudu and Maria Caley are also included in the exhibition, as well as artists Rudolf Seibeb, Actofel Ilovu, Maria Mbereshu and Jo Rogge.
Interestingly, young emerging artists Ndako Nghipandulwa and Lynette Musukubili were inspired by the paintings of Themba Masala and Adolph Jentsch respectively. Musukubili, a Caprivian artist who works with recycled plastic waste, says that she was struck by the quietude and calm of Jentsch’s paintings, and his ability to capture the endless vistas, unique light, and ambiance of Namibia’s expansive landscapes.
Unmourned Bodies is on view at the AVA, 35 Church Street, Cape Town, from 9 March to 20 April 2023. For more information, contact Jo Rogge at email@example.com or Frieda Lühl at The Project Room Namibia at +264 81 751 3026.
Marita van Rooyen