For a new kind of memory culture “Let’s have tea and sing love songs!”

Woman from the Herero people with typical headgear, Damaraland, Namibia
Woman of the Herero people with traditional headgear, Damaraland, Namibia | Photo (detail): Frauke Scholz © picture alliance / imageBROKER

For his performance “The Dance of the Rubber Tree”, Namibian performer, writer and educator Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja visited different types of archives. In the examination of power structures that have continued in Namibia since German colonialism and apartheid, he sees an opportunity to narrate history beyond ethnocentric interpretations. In an interview with “Latitude”, he explains why a queer perspective is particularly important.

By Elisabeth Wellershaus

During a residency at the Hamburg Museum am Rothenbaum (MARKK), you evaluated photographs from the time of German colonialism in Namibia. What exactly did you discover and how did your view of archives change?
 
I was particularly interested in the documentation of the genocide on the Nama and Ovaherero peoples. Images that document the horror of the concentration camps or the forced labour, but also the resistance and resilience. My definition of an archive shifted significantly during my work in Hamburg. As a queer, Namibian artist, I no longer see traditional archives as the only place where the past can be preserved. My body is also an archive; it contains memories that go far beyond colonial and post-colonial experiences. The homes of our families in Namibia, the places where our everyday life takes place, are also archives.
 
 
  • Wood engraving Deutsch-Suedwestafrika, Herero Uprising 1904/5 - 'Uprising of the Hereros in Deutsch-Suedwestafrika 1904'. - Lithograph, colored. Print: C. Burckurdt's descendants, Weissenburg © picture alliance/akg-images
    Wood engraving Deutsch-Suedwestafrika, Herero Uprising 1904/5 - 'Uprising of the Hereros in Deutsch-Suedwestafrika 1904'. - Lithograph, colored.
  • Work on the diamond fields of the Colonial Mining Company at the Lüderitzbucht (German South West Africa, today Namibia) Photo, 1910. Photo: akg-images © picture alliance
    Work on the diamond fields of the Colonial Mining Company at the Lüderitzbucht (German South West Africa, today Namibia) Photo, 1910.
  • Queuing for the meagre wages in "German Southwest": black workers at Windhoek station, around 1910 Photo: akg-images © picture alliance
    Queuing for the meagre wages in "German Southwest": black workers at Windhoek station, around 1910
  • Soldiers' vegetable garden in German Southwest Africa, 1905/06, planted by black relief workers Photo: akg-images © picture alliance
    Soldiers' vegetable garden in German Southwest Africa, 1905/06, planted by black relief workers
My performance The Dance of the Rubber Tree comes to grips with the images from the archive in Hamburg. Although the archives of my childhood appear everywhere between the lines. Ingredients that my mother used in the kitchen, jewellery and clothes that were worn in our family. Memories of the rubber tree which grows in the north of Namibia, where I was born, and which is of great cultural importance.
 
Usually, colonial archives document the erasure of certain cultures and traditions, sometimes the decimation of entire peoples. But only addressing those losses wasn’t enough for me. I also looked for positively connoted forms of erasure. In this way I came across the rubber tree, whose branches are used in Namibia in, for instance, medical remedies – they can cure diseases.

You developed your performative language with a focus on, among other things, feminist and queer perspectives. What new narratives does this yield with a respect to archives?
 
Colonial documentation has long been viewed only from a European and a purely patriarchal perspective. Feminist and queer interpretations are almost completely lacking. The culture of remembrance in Namibia is still strongly influenced by the stories of the struggle for liberation, including the trauma of the genocide. But women rarely appear in these stories, much less queer narratives. Yet in our cave paintings there were already pictures of shape-shifters, which scholars today interpret as gay or queer figures. These images appear in my performances because they subvert heteronormative and patriarchal narratives.
 
In The Dance of the Rubber Tree I show a portrait of a woman that I found in the Hamburg archive. It’s a marvellous example of how present women were in the different phases of our history. It shows a nameless forced labourer sitting next to freshly laid railroad tracks, a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, looking directly into the camera. Everything about her pose shows resistance, just as if she wanted to say: “You can't break me”. For me, this attitude symbolizes the concept of transgression. And that’s exactly what my work is about. Breaking up normative structures and perceiving actions of resistance. In the end, queerness means nothing other than refusing existing categorizations.
 
Especially in places like Katutura, where you grew up, you use your art to stimulate a kind of resistance culture. Why there?
 
Katutura is a township from the 1950s where families like mine were forcibly relocated and residents were divided into ethnic groups. For a long time my life was divided in half: friends and family were in Katutura; university, theatre, galleries and career opportunities were on the other side of Windhoek. Today I work increasingly in Katutura to break up this centralization. I invite local and international artists there to make access to local art easier. The structures we work with are usually forms of peaceful protest. At the beginning we approached the community very gingerly, meeting under a tree on Sunday in front of the church, reading feminist literature and checking whether there was any interest. We came back a month later and saw that this had in fact made contact with people. We painted a school together with schoolchildren, went on tours of the township with young adults, and discussed decolonization. For us it was always about focussing on the realities of life in Katutura. The participation of the community, the exchange about colonial and patriarchal structures, the feeling that the audience is part of the performance and the discussion – all of this is crucial for us. Because there’s a power in this form of publicity that can shift perspectives.
 
You and your artist collective have performed “The Dance of the Rubber Tree” in Yaoundé in a public space amidst shoe sellers and begging children. What dynamic are you looking for outside a theatre setting?
 
Yaoundé is a good example of our artistic approach, because there we actually performed in a place where, apart from a few guests from the Goethe Institute, there was no traditional theatre audience. Vendors walked into the middle of the production to sell their stuff until some of them let themselves get involved in the performance. This is audience empowerment beyond the white cube or the traditional black box. Even in Germany, a country I could only come closer to gradually because of its violent history, there were moving moments in our performances. Especially in Munich we met an amazingly engaged audience. The people there put up with our calling for the subversion of white monopoly capitalism in our final manifesto. And also listened to our suggestion: “Let’s have tea and sing love songs!” In the end, it’s about reconciliation – so that the anger doesn't eat you up.