In August 2014, the Artwolfe Editorial team visited the site of the new COSDEF Arts and Crafts Centre. Situated on the main road out of Swakopmund, the site was a flurry of concrete dust and fraught, half-confident allusions to the Millennium Challenge Account that was going to pay for absolutely everything – so long as it was all finished by the end of September.
The money was available, we were assured by the head of the centre Michelle //Inixas, but in order to make full use of it the job had to be done within the agreed deadline. The building project had only started in July 2013 and involved the construction of a multi-purpose training centre, kiosks, a conference room, gallery, restaurant and outdoor amphitheatre. This placed an enormous amount of pressure on builders, contractors and stakeholders alike. And so it was with a shudder of relief that I started seeing announcements about the opening celebrations appear in the press. Scheduled for the 13th and 14th November, it looked like the deadline was reached after all. It isn’t that what we saw on our visit in August wasn’t promising – in fact the dusty-but-new emptiness of the unfurnished rooms, oozed potential. We were taken round the training rooms; this one for leatherwork, this one for jewellery, this one for glasswork and ceramics. Other rooms were for textiles, another for painting and even one for new media. There were shops with empty shelves and ‘incubation’ cubicles where emerging designers would perfect their products. Marvellous, exciting, wonderful! But also, they were empty rooms full of good-sounding words and American money that was being held enticingly overhead like those thunder clouds that threaten to burst, but might float away. It was exciting but also unnerving. The news that the centre was opening suggested something more concrete than all the actual concrete it was composed of. I was excited to investigate the centre in action, doing what it was supposed to do.
COSDEF stands for Community Skills Development Foundation and its mandate is to support Community Skills Development Centres (COSDECs) all over the country. With a focus on teaching art and craft skills, these centres also provide training in product development, business and entrepreneurship, recognising that a holistic training is essential if their programmes are to effect sustainable change in Namibia’s communities.
Furthermore, they focus on making their courses available to people whose access to formal education has been limited – an essential task that, if neglected, leaves countless Namibians behind as the country moves forward. Significantly, the training facilities at the new COSDEF centre will offer it’s students an NQF (National Qualifications Framework) training up to level 2 – a qualification that will allow pupils to graduate to a tertiary institute such as COTA (the College of the Arts) to continue their arts education at a higher level.
In effect, the centre will be able to offer aspiring, creative Namibians a chance to bridge the gap between secondary and tertiary education that might otherwise have remained unavailable.With these encouraging and idealistic ambitions in mind, I revisited the centre in December. Compared to my previous visit the centre was peaceful – empty of people, but full of art and artefacts. I noticed a few heads down, hands-at-work in some of the production rooms and people selling their wares in the incubation units, but I seemed to be the only visitor. Upstairs in the new media room, I chatted to Duif Keyer, the training co-ordinator for the centre, about his job. It turns out, a lot of it comes down to market research – finding out what people want to make, what people want to buy, what people want to learn.
Keyer receives proposals from people for projects or workshops they want to conduct and he is required to assess their viability and relevance. He also needs to find out if ideas are worth funding, and who will fund them. Courses that are funded are offered to students at very low prices making them attractive to people with low incomes, but it is not always easy to match everyone up. You can have a great course but no funding, or great funding with no students. Keyer’s job as co-ordinator is to make sure that the right skills reach the right people. However, the right people are hard to find and the biggest challenge so far has been getting people to attend the courses. This news was a little depressing to hear. If people aren’t bashing at the door to get well-priced training at this expensive and state-of-the-art centre already, what does its future hold? But let’s face it – it is the end of the year, things are slowing down. If anything, the new centre represents a new beginning and what better time to begin than a new year? Hopefully the flocking and knocking will start come January, and the centre will come alive.
In the meantime, with the Christmas season approaching, the centre could not be more perfectly situated to benefit from the annual onslaught of holiday-makers to the coast. With luck they will all head to COSDEF and buy many of the exquisite goods on sale there. Every purchase made there feeds directly back into COSDEF’s pocket and will be used to reach and benefit other deserving Namibians who enrol in their programmes.
Every new initiative has to start somewhere, baby-steps and even backwards steps are taken before notable progress is made. Nevertheless it is also true that ideas are thin air unless they can reach the necessary people. The COSDEF Arts and Crafts centre seems to me to be the perfect incarnation of this phenomenon. Bold and brimming with possibility, it has the potential to push Namibia’s crafts industry into a new sphere and also to drive Namibia’s arts education to higher standards, but it is also at risk of succumbing to window-dressing. It will take some time to know how they fare, but for now at least the concrete of the building is there.