IT ALL BOILS DOWN TO A SINGLE WORD
Text: Torsten Jurell. About the Namibian artist Imke Rust in the Swedish art magazine Konstperspektiv #3-08
IT IS THE LAST day in November. The clouds are frothing like cream
down the slopes of Table Mountain when we meet in Cape Town - 28 artists
at the Thupelo International Urban Art Workshop 2007.
Almost all those attending are from African nations. Four of us come from other parts
of the world. We are there to work and exhibit. But, above all, we're there to share our experiences as artists. One important aspect of the workshop is to show what kind of art we normally produce back home.
When art meets in this generous way, it is local knowledge that
meets. Content meets content - experiences and intellect find expression
in artistic communication.
Artists establish links - Namibia meets South Africa, India meets Congo, Zimbabwe, Swedenº Different traditions come together and the understanding that there are many parallel "truths" increases. Another world is given contours, different to those we glimpse behind the terse superficiality of the news headlines.
Back in Stockholm, in my ordinary day-to-day life, I have never reflected over the concept of "identity". In that sense, the workshop was an eye-opener for me.
The presentations of the work we do as artists took different
trajectories, but none left us unmoved. One about what it's like to be
young, black and yet not to have taken part in the resistance struggle.
Another "Black is Beautiful" or "What do you prefer? White bread or
One about being young and white and not wanting to be tarred with yesterday's apartheid brush. Rites of passage, rape and other forms of abuse that are given form, made visible and placed provocatively side by side with the ideal that lurks behind cosmetic operationsº It can all be summed up in "Who am I?" or distilled into "identity".
Since Christmas the e-mail traffic has been intensive. Involved in our various discussions about art and different ways of looking at the world are artists from Calcutta, Nairobi, Windhoek... Other contacts from other continents are soon caught up in our deliberations.
I've chosen my discussion with Imke Rust, one of Namibia's most prominent artists, as an example of how our e-mails and text messages serve as an extension of the workshop's expression of a globalised world in the very best sense.
Imke Rust doesn't know how to present herself in a text to be published in Beijing. We have discussed the issue by e-mail.
"I can't decide whether or not it's necessary to say I'm a woman. Not that it makes any real difference... But, there's no denying, it's an intriguing question about identity: Am I Imke Rust? Or am I a Namibian woman artist called Imke Rust? Or am I Imke Rust, who lives in Windhoek and paints dogs? Or am I the owner of four small Baobab trees and an herb garden? Or the person who supports two starving cats... ? Or, who am I? I don't know. The baobab tree would say, 'I am all of these'..." politics & power
Namibia, in the south-western corner of Africa, faces the Atlantic with the Namib Desert as its elongated coastline and the Kalahari in the east. It's a sparsely populated place. Many of the two million people who live in Namibia live on small farms and, even if the country is one of Africa's richer, unemployment is high and poverty great.
"I will be the first Namibian artist to live from her art!" Imke is defiantly optimistic. She has been a professional artist, curator and writer for many years.
When the conflict over land reform in Zimbabwe worsened in 2002 and spilled over the border into Namibia, several farmers were murdered. It was then that Imke Rust created a piece of work with the title "Where do we go from here...?" The question was a bit representative of the general concept behind the series she made entitled "Power & Politics"."I am the fifth generation of my family in Namibia. My forbears were German missionaries and my father farms land that he bought when I was just eight years old. Of course I was worried about my father. Many Namibians with European origins have left the country.
My family and our friends often talked about leaving to move somewhere else - but where? This is our home!
Even if it was a personal problem, I soon realised that it was a universal problem, too. People fearful of the misuse of power, who are forced to leave the country of their birth in order to survive."
In Imke Rust's pictures from this time, dogs serve as a metaphor both for the oppressor and the oppressed. Doberman pinschers, dogs normally associated with aggression and brute strength, are transformed by Imke Rust in "Where do we go from here...?" into fleeing hounds - fleeing like the white farmers.
Dogs and their relationship with us humans is a recurrent theme in her work.
There is always a "master - servant" relationship between a man and his dog.
Imke Rust's art raises questions about the motives for war and conflict - about power and oppression.
"A year after 'Where do we go from here...?' I read in a newspaper report how 140 dogs that once belonged to a security company for farmers had been killed in Zimbabwe. The dogs had simply been abandoned when the country's land reforms had left the company without any farms to guard. The article was accompanied by a picture showing how the dead dogs were piled up one on top of the other.Like a symbolic answer to the question posed in the earlier work, 'Where do we go from here...?' - where the dogs seem to be fleeing - the dogs have instead become the hapless victims of the crisis they sought to evade. At the same time the media were also reporting from the war in Iraq and there, too, was a picture that I couldn't get out of my mind - of Iraqi victims of the war, of feet projecting from a mound of piled-up corpses."
The baobab tree says, "I am all of these!"
When Imke's grandfather was sent away, Imke's mother was only two months old. Imke has found a postcard in the old tin where the young father is kissing his eight-week old daughter farewell. What everyone thought would be a short spell of incarceration turned into six years. An incredibly long time. Here and there in Namibia it was suddenly the women who were running the farms. And children were raised without the help of husbands and fathers, as is so often the case in war.
Imke finds a picture of her grandfather on his return, hugging his
now six-year-old daughter. The difference between the tenderness of that
farewell kiss and the two strangers who met so long afterwards helps
Imke to understand why her mother never spoke of Imke's grandfather with
any particular affection.
He was a stranger who one day came home and took over the reins. Imke started to work with the postcards, driven by her own private fascination to research "identity".
"I can hardly believe it! Did you really manage to get hold of a copy of the book? In English or in Swedish? In a book shop or via the Internet? Wow! I had no idea that her ancestors came from Sweden, but it certainly sounds that way..."
Imke is overwhelmed by the fact that I have managed to get hold of a translation of Wilma Stockenström's "The Expedition to the Baobab Tree" in a second-hand bookshop. In her e-mail Imke explains, "the baobab tree is a symbol for so many things in the book, but mostly for 'I' - our ego, our identity."
In a biscuit tin at home Imke keeps a collection of postcards. They are cards that Imke's grandmother once sent to her husband.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Imke's grandfather, along with all the other men with a German background, was interned. Namibia had once been a German colony (German South-West Africa) but was placed under South African administration following the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. As a result, Imke's grandfather was expatriated from his farm to an internment camp in South Africa.
To evade the censor's pen, Imke's grandmother pretended that the postcards she wrote to her husband each week were written by his young daughter: "Mein lieber, lieber Papi..." (My dearest, dearest Daddy) they all began.
In a fusion, these images became "Mugabylo (Winner takes all)", a strong position, like a two-dimensional monument by Imke Rust."Everything is second-hand memories that I have processed. I've used the memories that my mother and her mother and other people have recalled for me. The events are my memories of other people's memories. I wasn't there.The fact that I used memories based on the memories of other people is a conscious choice, an important choice. Memories are treacherous things, vague, fickle and unreliableº I mix other people's memories with my own and make new ones."One day one of Imke's friends saw her suite of artworks and persuaded her to put them on public display. What Imke had created was suddenly no longer a private history. It was part of Namibia's history. More universal even than that.
Now "Memories" has been exhibited at many places in Namibia and Germany and every where it has been shown, the exhibition has encountered audiences with different experiences of divided families. In particular, the memories of a divided Germany have contributed much to the reception that Imke's work has been given in that country. While my persistent questions hurtle through cyber space like stardust, an ordinary letter to Namibia takes four weeks to deliver - if, indeed, it is delivered at all. It doesn't make any difference if I send a letter or a parcel. It takes the same time.In my mind's eye I see Klaus Kinski pulling the S/S Namibia piled high with parcels through the Kalahari Desert. In an hour, via e-mail, I have answers to questions that with ordinary post it would take me eight weeks to receive. What a blessing this new technology is!
"Hmm, very interesting - such a small world where everything goes round in circles! Thanks for your text message. I got it on the way home after dropping Bisi Silva off at the airport."Being an artist in Namibia is tough. Few people visit art exhibitions and fewer still buy works of art. If you're white, it's taken for granted that you're privileged. If you're a white female artist, many people are convinced that you must have some form of financial support. Despite the fact that, for Imke, the reality of the situation is very different indeed.
"When I was young, I read an interview in a woman's magazine. It was
still during apartheid's time and the person interviewed was a black
woman, who managed to be the first black news reader for the main
television channel in South Africa.
This was obviously something very unique and strange in those times. So they asked her how she managed to get into such an important public position despite her being black and it was apartheid.
Her answer was something that deeply impressed me and since has guided me: she said that when she was young her father once had a long talk with her and said: "Understand and accept that you are born with the two biggest faults into this world: one is that you are a black person (in SA) and second that you are a woman. So your chances of achieving anything are close to zero. If you still want to achieve something special, I have only one piece of advice for you: you have to work ten times harder, ten times longer, be ten times smarter and ten times better than everybody else - then nobody can fault you."
So that was what she did. And I realized that that is the difference of success...
Bisi Silva is a curator in Nigeria with a growing international reputation. She is building a centre for contemporary art and an important reference library in Lagos. She has come to Namibia to meet Imke Rust (maybe that is a bit too much to say that, she was here on holiday and took the opportunity to meet several artists, including me ?)after the latest issue of "Art South Africa" reported on an art project in Etosha National Park involving Namibia's most prominent artists. It is the first ever mention of Namibian contemporary art in this prestigious quarterly. Imke is happy. Proud. She is taking part in the project as an artist, but she is also the instigator and the curator. And the widespread success of the Etosha project has also made the sponsors happy, which is extremely important for art in a country like Namibia.
At the same time Imke is frustrated.
Every time I am outside of Namibia I wonder if it is not better for me and my art to live somewhere else, where art is more appreciated and where there is a larger market. The temptation is big and maybe I am stupid for staying.
As you say very rightly, we are alone in this. That is one of my
biggest struggles, yet, I know it could not be any other way, and I
guess it is also good that way. Each one has to figure stuff out for
them selves. But, it is nice to have a friend.
It is nice to see what other people are doing or thinking, it helps to not feel so alone. It gives me some strength, but almost more importantly it gives me some perspective. For example, that it is not just easier and smoother, if you live in another country, or if you have another skin colour, or if you change the style of your art." Torsten Jurell
WHAT IS THUPELO?
is a Sotho word and means ' to teach by example' .The Thupelo workshops
provide artists with a rare opportunity to work with fellow artists in
an intense yet supportive environment where the creative process is
designed to lead to personal artistic growth.
The workshops are not only a space for artists to make art; they are also a space for the exchange of ideas, experiences, techniques and disciplines, thereby creating the conditions for artists to experiment and find new or different forms of expression.
In essence, it is the interaction between artists from diverse cultural, national and social backgrounds that provides the workshops with a creative energy that is more than likely to influence the work of participating artists.
The Thupelo workshops are styled on the Triangle Arts Trust's artists workshops, the first of which was held in New York in 1982. Since then, workshops based on the Triangle prototype have taken place on a regular basis in thirty-seven countries, with nearly 3000 artists participating in events. All workshops are organized and convened by local artists and art administrators in the countries in which they are held.
They are run for an uninterrupted period of ten days to two weeks and are attended by between twenty and twenty-five artists. In the case of international workshops, half the number of participants are from the host country.