The Katutura Community Art Centre is located on the edge of Katutura and Northern Industrial Area, Windhoek. The art centre is occupied by the College of the Arts which falls under the Ministry of Youth, National Service, Sport and Culture. It’s a pretty rad place and houses the College diploma courses in Visual Art, Fashion Design and Media Studies. It is also the only institution in Namibia, apart from UNAM (University of Namibia), that offers tertiary level education in the Fine Arts.
The building is a grey concrete slab, slapped into place by the old South African administration in 1970. Its original function was as a kitchen and mess hall for migrant labourers. Men from all over Namibia passed through the building as part of a routine. They were classified according to their physical strength and put to work for criminally low wages. Far away from their families and support networks, they were easily abused and mistreated by their employers. In this way the building itself was once an awful physical feature of a repressive regime.
How times have changed. It’s strange to walk through the space now, trying to imagine it as it was. There would have been no art on the walls, no fabrics hanging from the ceiling, no students working industriously towards their own personal aesthetic goals. Sure the space is still a cold concrete building with a utilitarian feel to it but the people who occupy it are there by choice.
Funnily enough there is one way in which things haven’t changed. During South African rule a lot of political activism took place in Migrant Labour Compounds specifically because they were spaces where people were already gathered and talking about the injustice of the regime. SWAPO (then OPO) members, like Sam Nujoma, would enter the compounds dressed as Christian ministers in order to spread word about the liberation struggle. In 1971 six thousand workers went on strike in the Windhoek compound. During the strike the workers put up wall posters as part of their campaign. All over the country more dissent followed. This action on the part of the workers was just one small way in which independence was slowly won. Freedom of expression is particularly important for the Arts, as are places like the KCAC, where people gather, talk and think about current issues.
The causes driving activism have changed since the days when the KCAC was used as a mess hall for migrant labourers but political activism remains. On the 25th of July this year Orange Day was celebrated at the KCAC. Orange Day was proclaimed by the United Nations to ‘Unite to end violence against women’. The celebrations included musical, poetic and dramatic performances as well as an exhibition of Fine Art produced by the Visual Art Department. The Namibian Police Brass Band and the Hope Children’s Band marched with the gathered crowd of artists to the Katutura Police Station. Marching is one way to be active and let your voice and opinion be heard. Other ways are through creative outlets, like dance, painting, singing and acting.
The art exhibition that opened on Orange Day is a prime example other types of activism. All of the work was produced collaboratively. Artists were given materials and asked to work with a friend, family member or someone from their community. Some of the work was painted by the artists with instruction from their collaborators, some by the collaborators themselves. Each image was accompanied by text documenting the process and impetus behind the work; each one a harrowing account of abuse, neglect, fear and violence.
Domestic violence, and all the other types of violence that usually accompany it, are common in Namibia. So much so, that we are getting used to events like this: The Gender Based Violence exhibition held at the National Gallery, the 16 Days of Activism, the National Day of Prayer. What the KCAC exhibition did that others haven’t so far, was create an intimacy between the viewer and the work that I have not experienced before. By asking artists to tell other people’s stories they are forced to deal with one specific reality (rather than a broad unfocused generalization on the theme of violence). The specificity brings to us as viewers subject matter that is not beautiful or easy to deal with but rather something raw and unrelenting. Here’s an example:
Artist: Micheal Ndimulunde with Usko (artist’s friend)
“This drawing is all about the son and his father. The father likes to beat the boy and the boy ran away and hid under the bed. The father is trying to get the boy out. This also used to happen to the artist when he was young. It is something that you will never forget, being beaten. It will always be on your mind. If parents treat their children badly, children will be afraid of them. It is not good to use violence against children.”
These types of activism are alive and well in the old compound made new, a space that I cannot think of a better use for in independent Namibia.
Helen Harris is a Namibian artist who likes to write and read about art.