Silence is also a conversation Speaking public spaces

ma ndili kurt von francois 5 banner
© Shomwatala Shivute

Namibia has a number of old and new monuments which represent the country’s past and its future. These monuments have become part of an independent nation, but the public appears to be complacent and silent. An artist participating in the Future Africa Visions in Time (FAVT) initiative regards this as a conversation in its own right, for silence also speaks. The FAVT initiative invited local artists to contribute to a series of installations and exhibitions that aim to spark a debate around the continent’s past and its future.

ma ndili reiterdenkmal 1 © Shomwatala Shivute One of the Namibian participants in FAVT Windhoek was Nelago Shilongoh, whose installation “Ma Ndili” evolved around buildings and monuments in Windhoek. Her project started with research amongst the capital city’s community who she said knew of the monuments but understood very little.

“In particular, when I interviewed people about the Kurt von Francois [Reiterdenkmal] who stood on a horse in the city centre, they had no idea who I was talking about. They just knew him as the rider and shaped their lives around it being there but they did not bother to understand more about it. They subconsciously accepted it as how life is,” she said.
 
ma ndili reiterdenkmal 2 © Shomwatala Shivute Shilongoh said her installation is nothing about fighting the acknowledgement of Namibia’s past and its representation, like the Reiterdenkmal, which was erected in 1911 in honour of the German soldiers and civilians. Her installation, she said, is more about stimulating a conversation about what is regarded as mundane but what plays a big role in shaping the nation’s and its citizens’ identities.
 
“People undermine the power of these monuments and public spaces. These are the spaces that encapsulate the livelihoods of the people that occupy it through representing the making and envisioning of their identity. In the end, they have a strong influence in how you envision your life and yourself.”

Draped in a red cloth, Shilongoh travelled around Windhoek and stood in silence at a selection of monuments that she said collectively represent the power of the past and present administration that governs the country – it would be baseless to regard her project as apolitical while Namibians build their lives in the shadows of such buildings.
 
ma ndili kurt von francois 3 © Shomwatala Shivute “Life is political! My project is political in terms of the colonial discourse and the German and Afrikaans inheritance through the shadows that are still here. It is not something that is packed in a bag. It is in the cityscape and the buildings and the food that we eat. That is what I wanted to explore and understand how I can engage my body with these sites that are so significant.”

Despite the importance of these buildings in Namibia’s history, the nation does not appear willing to publicly engage in dialogues on such matters and hardly visits the sites, something Shilongoh says could be viewed positively instead of defining Namibia as complacent.
 
“People not engaging with these buildings can be considered as taking the power, shadow and memory away – the power of the colonial past. This might be a positive thing because we are taking the power away from a site and object that in the past was a symbol of the patriarchal and colonial power over the people of Namibia.”
 
ma ndili kurt von francois 1 © Shomwatala Shivute Having grown up in Windhoek, which to this date features architecture of the colonial era, German street names and German cuisine, Shilongoh said a trip to Berlin, Germany a few years ago was not exciting and exotic but opened her mind to begin questioning her identity.
 
“Usually if you travel to a new place then there is a cultural interest that is pulling you closer to the environment. That did not happen to me there because of the culture and aesthetics through the architecture that felt too familiar. It only made sense to me when I returned to Namibia and began to question where I grew up and how it affected my life.”
 
Apart from staging her installation in spaces of historical significance to highlight the need for discourse on these matters, Shilongoh said she used the public spaces for art to be understood as a more accessible mode of communication in a nation where exhibitions and galleries tend to be regarded as exclusive spaces.
 
“I am not taking a position of power and speaking on behalf of everybody through my safety as an artist. I do however hope that people begin talking about what is on their minds and reflect on what we have. This is a way of overcoming that discomfort of engaging in a conversation.”