Questioning the norm Under fire: the concept of landscape

“Shark Island and its Hinterland”, !Nami#Nus/Lüderitz 2012
“Shark Island and its Hinterland”, !Nami#Nus/Lüderitz 2012 | Photo: Nicola Brandt

The corresponding relationship between landscape and identity requires a critical reconsideration of the traditional landscape genre in art and photography. The Namibian artist Nicola Brandt urges for a more balanced interrogation of the concept of landscape that leads to a change of mindset.

By Nicola Brandt

In her book Landscapes Between Then and Now, the artist and scholar Nicola Brandt examines the increasingly compelling and diverse cross-disciplinary work of photographers and artists made during the transition from apartheid to post-apartheid and into the contemporary era. She sheds light on established and emerging themes related to aftermath landscapes, embodied histories, (un)belonging, spirituality and memorialization. Brandt shows how landscape and identity are mutually constituted, and profiles this process against the background of the legacy of the acutely racially divisive policies of the apartheid regime that are still reflected on the land. As a signpost throughout the book, Brandt draws on the work of the renowned South African photographer Santu Mofokeng and his critical thinking about landscape.

Landscape and Identity

In a presentation at the 2019 Museum Conversations in Windhoek, Brandt presented aspects of a critical approach to the subject of ‘landscape’ as it is practiced in art and photography. As proposed by the South African photographer Santu Mofokeng, landscape is not separated from the self: ‘Landscape is not geography, certainly not in the romantic sense. It is about your view, where you live, where you die, that is your landscape.’ For Mofokeng the landscape is seen, experienced and embodied. It can be said that no view created by an artist can adequately convey the profound sense of embodiment of place that Mofokeng speaks of. In the context of the urgency of land restitution, Mofokeng’s description has become increasingly relevant. The ‘western’ historical meaning of land, or ‘landscape’, has little relevance to the demands for land, but nonetheless has a tenuous, uncomfortable connection.

The scholar Renzo Baas describes the mindsets behind many of the earlier representations of  landscape: ‘The production of the “empty” landscape, with its rhetoric and rationality of terra nullius, is infused with white potential and disavows previous claims to these so-called “empty” spaces. The colonizer – by first possessing the land artistically – can claim the discursive landscape and start to infuse it with ideals imported from the metropole  [colonial power networks in Europe] … The colony becomes a space in which knowledge about the “Other” is produced as much as knowledge about the Self is disseminated.’

The colonizer’s imprint, and value system, can still be clearly seen in structures such as architecture, monuments, museum exhibits and artefacts, remaining street names and fences containing vast tracts of commercial and private farmland. In places like Swakopmund or Lüderitz in the constituency ǃNamiǂNûsǃ, the land and unmarked graves remain a silent witness to the colonial legacy.

Beyond the Colonial Archive

In the colonial archives one finds documentations of towns, settlements and infrastructures alongside portraits, ethnographic photographs, and snapshots of white colonial agents at leisure and in pursuit of their projects. Beyond the representation of seemingly ‘benign’ activities and landscapes, the archive offers stark contrasts. Brushing up closely are images of forced labour and brutality, and of the German-Namibian War of 1904–1908 during which the colonial genocide took place (see: Johanna Wild, Ovizire Somgu: From Where Do We Speak? Exhibition Catalogue MARKK Museum Hamburg, 2018, pages 8 and 9). Notwithstanding the dehumanizing portrayals, these images also give visual sovereignty and evidence of the continued presence on the land of those who lived here prior to the arrival of the colonizer. Nevertheless, these colonial photographic archives primarily reveal the attitudes and aesthetics of white supremacist patriarchy and how it is mapped on the land.

Modern and contemporary artists attempt to give accounts on behalf of the land in formats that range from the literal/documented to metaphor and poetic license. The sincerity of an artist’s or photographer’s encounter with the landscape – and all that exists within it – cannot be equated with truth. Yet through empathic engagement, a sensitive interpretation may be offered, and the viewer might be moved to think differently. The politics around land is based on a deeply visceral identification with possession and ownership, and the need for a sense of belonging and safety, with a vision towards a horizon without boundaries. After waves of violence and displacement, links to ancestral lineage, and in turn to ancestral land, are now beginning to dominate the conversation. Well before independence, the Namibian artist John Muafangejo (1943–1987) already began to reflect critically on the social and political environment of his country and that of South Africa. Muafangejo’s woodcut prints and his powerful social commentary have particularly inspired a younger generation of artists in Namibia.

At one level Namibia’s physical landscape forms an integral part of the collective psyche. It is a landscape of extremes. Beyond the immediate socio-political representation of land and what landscape means to the viewer across the political divide, the land bears witness within a time-scale that we cannot ever fully grasp. Artists might attempt to draw attention to these different temporalities – stretching beyond contemporary imagination and memory to marks, scars and traces linked to the geological and the primordial and back to the present. In myriads of small details, the landscape presents us its evolution, and its destruction.

Against the background of legacies of occupation, genocide, forced removals and economic disenfranchisement, the present generation continues to fight to have its voices heard, and transmits the knowledge and memory of past (and present) traumas in ways that go well beyond the visual image.  They are communicated through aural histories, ritual, in music, in places of historical significance and most of all, in the gaps and spaces in-between visual representation.

Critically-engaged artists and activists, including eco-feminists and queer bodies challenge the mastery by only a few of what should be our shared world. Cross-disciplinary artists, and I include myself in that, use a range of strategies and formats to try and make visible memories and power structures situated in place. Through certain interventions, artists have the capacity to re-map possible new futures both onto place and their own being. In an increasing number of performance and collective works, and the use of the body in their works, emerging artists are redefining their place in the contemporary landscape.

Interview with Nicola Brandt during the "Museum Conversations" 2019 in Namibia: