Remembering in Dance “Stop Putting Make-up on the Scars of the Past”

Trixie Munyama looks at a piece of clay in her hand during a performance.
Performance by Trixie Munyama at the festival “The Burden of Memory” in November 2019 in Yaoundé. | Photo (detail): Yvon Yasmi © Goethe-Institut Kamerun

Trixie Munyama is a dancer, performer, choreographer and 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. In conversation with the journalist Elisabeth Wellershaus, Trixie Munyama 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.

Where are the opportunities for you as an artist, where are the difficulties for you as an artist in coming to terms with this topic?
The opportunities lie in working together with the audience to address something that is still far too much repressed at a national level. One of the difficulties is finding the right balance. In the beginning we worked a lot with historical documents, with archive photographs. But there is always the danger of re-traumatisation in disclosing such images. Besides, I' m not a historian, I' m an artist, although I am interested in historical accuracy, which is why I talk a lot with the representatives of the traditional communities, with the oldest members from Ovaherero and Nama communities. But not all of their accounts are reliable. Nevertheless, I am not only interested in the accurate depiction of history, but also in linking the past and the present.

Would you say that the driving force in the debate about colonial times is currently coming mainly from the creative community in Namibia?
The discussion is currently increasingly driven by artists and academics at home and abroad, as well as by Ovaherero and Nama in the diaspora. Cultural institutions abroad - especially in Germany - are also increasingly concerned with the colonial past and are seeking to engage in dialogue. Namibia's politicians, on the other hand, are somewhat reserved. One reason for this is that the era of the independence struggles is still strongly anchored in contemporary memory. Aside from the heroic myth from the times of liberation, there is hardly any space for mourning: not for the public reappraisal of colonialism, apartheid and also not for the crimes committed during liberation - among others in the dungeons of the SWAPO security apparatus. The rhetoric of the government is "forgive and forget". But this is a utopian approach that does not relate the problems of the present with the past. Ultimately, this is also a question of priorities: The government is made up largely of members of the Ovambo, the largest population group in terms of numbers. The Nama and Ovaherero, who were directly impacted by the genocide, have been politically underrepresented for some time and continue to fight to have their perspectives heard.

Do you think that an artistic approach can perhaps have a more powerful influence on society in any case?
I believe that we as artists enjoy fundamentally different freedoms than politicians or civil society, which in Namibia is highly dependent on the political line anyway. We creative people are extremely free in our choice of themes and can decide quite independently on the perspectives and direction of our art. Many of us try to use this freedom in order to get into conversation about colonial themes, especially with young people. In my function as a choreographer and lecturer at the College of the Arts, I can do this from various perspectives. In addition, my colleagues and I also try to avoid entrenching ourselves intellectually in our art bubble, but to bring the subject out of the theatres and into the communities.  

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.

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