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Trixie Munyama at the digital festival “Latitude”
“Stop putting make-up on the scars of the past”

Performance by Trixie Munyama at the festival “The Burden of Memory” in November 2019 in Yaoundé.
Performance by Trixie Munyama at the festival “The Burden of Memory” in November 2019 in Yaoundé. | Photo (detail): Goethe-Institut Kamerun/Yvon Yasmi

With the play “The Mourning Citizen”, which she is transferring to virtual space for the first time for the digital festival “Latitude”, Trixie Munyama from Namibia deals with the horrors of the German colonial past. In conversation with “The Latest” at Goethe, the dancer and choreographer speaks about forms of memory and the examination of pain, grief and rituals in dealing with the past.

By Elisabeth Wellershaus

In your choreographic works you deal primarily with Namibia’s colonial past, seeking to process the horrors of this time from an artistic perspective. What aspects do you focus on in particular?

I began working with other choreographers and performers on this part of our history a few years ago. On the genocide of the Nama and Ovaherero, the colonial politics and the traumas that followed and are still continuing to this day. Many of the problems currently afflicting our society have their roots in this history, among others: social inequality, corruption, the dispute on the land issue. That’s why I am most interested in the aspect of mourning – mourning for the dead we lost through colonial crimes and violence. But also about the opportunities that our past still deprives young people of in our country. My plays often deal with rituals with which I address the mourning, in order to then work through it collectively.

You often point out how important a shared process of healing is. What exactly do you understand by healing in the context of a colonial past?

The scenes we present in the play “The Mourning Citizen” – cleansing rituals or pieces of music in which the deceased is remembered – are meant to show the symbolic possibilities of dealing with the psychological consequences of the colonial past. Traditional rituals are an important part of many African cultures. However, young people in particular are increasingly afraid of the old traditions. Christianity has literally trained us away from them, and we are now almost all suffering from Afrophobia ourselves. The young generation in particular, who still feel that they serve a white minority. The unresolved horrors still haunt them. Also a persistent, systematic denigration of their identities. If we ritualise this pain and stop putting make-up on the scars of the past, then maybe we can look forward together.

What I don’t think all that much of, on the other hand, are highly politicised actions, such as the repatriation of the skulls of Nama and Ovaherero personalities. In my view, these are empty gestures that leave off where real reappraisal should begin. The few pretty press photos that are created in the process will hardly bring the political and social camps – government and opposition, young and old people – closer together.

A few months ago, the thematic week “The Burden of Memory”, conceived by the Goethe-Institut, ran in Yaoundé, bringing together cultural practitioners from six African countries that were formerly under German colonial rule. How did you perceive this encounter?

That was a real opportunity to get together and share stories that on the one hand are different, but still overlap in many places. In the inner-African context we still know too little about each other. Yet sharing a traumatic past that has sometimes been experienced in a very similar way can be very healing. So during that week a familiarity developed quickly among the artists from Cameroon, Togo, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Namibia. Perhaps a foundation stone for future collaborative work.

Engaging with European cultural practitioners is probably far more complex.

Yes, definitely. That’s why it’s extremely important in this context to ask: who is telling the story – and with what agenda? Is it a sincere attempt to reconstruct colonial history from different perspectives? Or is it just another cultural format that you can pat yourself on the back about because the visitor numbers were right? For the people of Namibia, the topic involves very sensitive matters that today are still shaping our everyday life in elementary ways. But we must seek an interchange precisely because my perspective as a black woman from Namibia is decidedly different from that of a German cultural manager. After all, we all have to deal with a past that has shaped us both, Europe as well as Africa. So we can’t avoid dealing with these stories collectively – so that future generations won’t have to relive our traumas.

Due to the Corona pandemic, discussions about de-colonisation and the culture of remembrance are currently being held primarily in digital form. Do you think that this will also make the internet a more diverse place?

Dealing with the colonial past is an extremely emotional topic. Anger is one of these emotions and channelling it can be challenging, especially when you’re not facing each other directly, as you and I are now. Especially since the internet is still far from being a democratic place that portrays our world in a nuanced manner. Especially during the Corona pandemic, the problems of content that result from this are clearly evident, since the reality of marginalised groups alone is scarcely represented in any differentiated way at all on the internet. Most of the information you come across is characterised by a Western perspective that is still colonial. And so the question on the net, as in real life, is: how do we create content that reflects the lived reality of many, instead of merely reproducing archive material for a relatively small elite? If we ask ourselves these questions, then the internet can also become a more open place for encounters, which would be important. Because there will be no progress in the post-colonial context without the engagement that we ask of each other.

About the person

Trixie Munyama is a dancer, performer, choreographer a lecturer in Dance Studies and the Acting Head of Department at the College of the Arts in Windhoek, Namibia. Having grown up in exile in Angola, her interest in dance was awakened in her childhood – by observing and participating in traditional Oshiwambo dances. After working in London and Cape Town, she founded the Da-mâi Dance Ensemble, with which she now explores local narratives in Namibia. Her performance “The Mourning Citizen” can be experienced live on June 5, 2020 at the Goethe-Institut’s digital festival “Latitude”.

The article is a shortened version of an article in the series “Goethe's World” from issue 06/2020 (June issue) of Politik & Kultur. Once a month an article from an African country on specific aspects of the local cultural scenes is published there in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut.