At the opening of Nicola Brandt’s exhibition, The Earth Inside, someone observed to me that Art events in Windhoek seem to attract the most diverse and vibrant cross-section of Windhoek’s social scene. I understood what she meant. A bustle of people had gathered to be part of the evening, networking frenziedly across the exhibition space; talking, discussing, gesticulating.
“What do you think?”
“I’ve never seen anything like this in Windhoek!”
A stir, a revelation. The Earth Inside consisted of a series of meticulous landscape photographs, a projected video triptych and an installation of household trappings, gleaned specially from German-Namibian colonial stock. The exhibition had a gloss and finish to it that I could not recall seeing at the National Gallery before.
“She’s doing a PHD in Fine Art… studying at Oxford!”
“Which one is she? Is she here?”
A young woman, born in Namibia but educated abroad, Brandt has her photograph taken in front of the title at the entrance. Chairs are set out in front of a podium. This formality enhances the distinguished atmosphere of the carefully curated space.
I know spaces like these. Having studied Fine Arts myself at the self-satisfied Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, exhibition-making in this style impresses but does not move me. Exquisitely executed, cradled in academic jargon and glossy to the point of being slick, the exhibition simultaneously enthrals and unnerves me. How can content so tragic and emotionally gut-wrenching stand to look so glamorous, so expensive? Brandt’s exquisite photography depicting sweeping, treacherous landscapes, silent memorials to past trauma glowed beautifully behind their frames.
In the triptych video piece, an anonymous, aged, German-speaking voice romanticises her experience of the colonial past. Re-contextualised into Brandt’s video and broader exhibition, the speaker is vilified. I was somewhat disturbed by this, wondering whether she understood that her voice would be framed in this way.
A friend visiting from South Africa wandered around the room. She commented to me that she regretted learning about history so horrible through an exhibition of this kind. Someone’s art project, their prestigious foreign PHD, claiming responsibility for visual revelations that are actually just carved into the landscape for anyone to come across.
This is partly Brandt’s point: the landscapes she portrays, marred by colonial atrocities and unmarked by formal memorialisation, are inscribed into the country’s historical narrative through oral history and personal stories, of subjugation – or privilege. Anyone visiting Swakopmund can take a walk to the edge of town and see the stark extent of mass graves belonging to Herero and Nama people who died in colonial labour camps. All over the desert, as Brandt demonstrates in her portraiture and self-portraiture, one can find opportunities to walk on scars. But you have to know the story before you can see its traces in the landscape.
Brandt’s academic and artistic interest lies in what she describes as “counter-narratives and blind spots in the historical record of the Herero genocide.” While formal historical records have largely failed to take such counter-narratives into account, they have come to the fore in contemporary reckonings of the past and Brandt’s artwork seeks to contribute to this ongoing process.
In her opening speech, she gave the impression that she approached this reckoning alone. She talks about how people in Namibia do not talk to one another. I imagine that I hear a shudder of contempt ripple through the room.
“Who is she to talk?”
Is she scolding us for failing to bare wounds, for failing to connect across cultural boundaries, across language and time? She continues, saying that she hopes the exhibition can help to initiate important conversations. Unsurprisingly, many people I spoke to afterwards (Windhoekers, old and young, who live and work here, and share their lives with one another) were ruffled by Brandt’s assumptions that Namibians are not talking to one another; that Namibians do not know one another. Who is she to make this assumption when she does not live here herself?
However, I think that Brandt may have a point, albeit a misdirected one. The conversations that occur after art events I attend in Windhoek are notable, because even when people dare to take a critical stance against someone’s work, they do so in hushed tones. This is not because people in Windhoek don’t talk, but because they do. The Windhoek gossip-mill is notorious for betraying people’s whispered objections. I have never seen a printed review of an art event that wasn’t lavishly complimentary. So we talk, yes, and perhaps even slander, but there are critical lines that people are nervous to cross, because – let’s face it – you stand to lose friends in this town if you do.
The Earth Inside unmistakeably follows this trend. People said a lot of nice things about it. People were very impressed and even moved by it. Others had mixed feelings, admiring the technical achievement but wary of what they implied. Others were more critical of what they perceived to be a problematic offering that failed to cover the contentious ground it claimed to. However, when I suggested writing a collaborative, critical review of the exhibition with some of these naysayers, I was hastily rejected. Nobody wants to step on anyone’s toes.
Approaching the past is somewhat hazardous for all involved, even if it is essential. If there is anything really valuable to take from Brandt’s offering it is that no single voice can rectify a history of silencing. All in all, the talkative people of Windhoek added theirs to a distinctly mixed review. I for one hope that we keep on talking.
Written by Windhoek-based Roffey Kleinschmidt who enjoys a glass of wine and a chat at any exhibition she can find.