Land Matters was initiated by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) under the leadership of Martina Roemer. The exhibition was organised with the intention of creating “an open and transparent dialogue” (Roemer, 2012) that engaged a diverse array of artists on issues surrounding land in Namibia. An open call was launched on the 5th of October 2012 by the Minister of Land and Resettlement, Alpheus G. !Narused. Of 270 submitted works, 152 were selected, with a total of 93 artists included in the exhibition.
Land Matters in Art was open from the 27th March to the 31st of May 2013 at The National Art Galley of Namibia (NAGN), the Goethe-Center, The Franco Namibian Cultural Center (FNCC) and the Soweto Market in Katutura. It encapsulated the Namibian context in two significant ways, firstly in terms of the continued ex-colonial influence on land distribution and secondly through its focus on development. It also encapsulated the context in which Namibian artists work and exhibit, and the opportunities they are exposed to. This context is significant to the discussion of how artists in Namibia engage with ideas of social transformation and artistic responsibility, as well as the influence of external expectations placed on them to do so.
The externally imposed expectations that underpinned Land Matters are clear, as Martina Roemer (GIZ team leader) wrote in the catalogue:
“Hopefully these exhibitions will result in discussions on various aspects of land and land reform, and provide us all with new and constructive views on land reform in Namibia” (Roemer, 2013)
It is true that the matter of land reform is known to many Namibians on a deeply personal level and inspires many a conflicting viewpoint. On the one hand, since independence
“Redistribution has been achieved without violence, without illegal land grabs, and with the agricultural sector still prosperous. Although the government’s reluctance to expropriate white-owned farms has led to impatience on the side of landless Namibians, social peace and stability has been maintained” (Wietersheim, 2012).
Conversely, an article printed by Sister Namibia summed up land ownership issues quite differently:
“We live in a country where the myth prevails that access to land will cure all social ills. It therefore is not surprising that it is every Namibian’s dream to own a piece of the land pie… most will have to contend with the crumbs only and still others with nothing.
There is hardly a politician, an academic, a bank manager, or a lawyer in this country who is not completely preoccupied with and living for supplementing his farming income with day jobs. Perhaps it is because so many city-dwelling fat cats are so busy as weekend farmers and weekend land owners that there are so many down-and-out rural women drifting to the urban sprawls we euphemistically refer to as informal settlements.” (Sasman, 2013:22)
Sasman’s article is harsh and to the point; land is an issue worth addressing and in need of discourse. The question is, how can it be dealt with artistically? In her review of Land Matters, Martha Mukaiwa described the exhibition as vast, sometimes vexing but giving “a much needed voice to all who have the courage to speak about land in the Land of the Brave.” (Mukaiwa, 2013). When I first read her article two years go I assumed that the overall positivity that runs through the article is testimony to the weight carried by exhibitions of this nature for both the development of art and the creation of critical dialogue. However since then I have come to the conclusion that exhibitions, which elicit no critical response may simply be the result of exhibitions containing no critical content. Or in this case an overload of critical content, that drowns out the potency of its underlying concerns.
How then can an inclusive, artistic response be orchestrated to meaningfully address social concerns? How do we create inclusive exhibitions that give young artists the opportunities they so desperately need, which also fulfill all the requirements of sponsors, stakeholders and the public?
Land Matters falls into a category that can be described as a ‘themed open-call group exhibition.’ It is a popular one on Namibia’s art scene. I group it alongside other prominent exhibitions that have taken place in Namibia in recent years. Who remembers GBV or Art Inside? Where once I praised this method for its inclusivity, I now find myself disillusioned. The works on these exhibitions tend to form – to quote Mukaiwa – a “vast and vexing” mass that for all its active engagement and loudly spoken opinions lose all critical meaning in their shear mass.
Perhaps the problem lies directly at the heart of these open-call exhibitions: The themes. Take the latest call for works for the next Art Inside exhibition. Artists are asked to create works that speak directly to themes “appropriate” to different ministries. Artists whose concerns lie outside these very specific guidelines are left with a choice – either they stick to what they want to make and don’t participate/risk rejection or (the more commonly chosen option) they forget about following their own artistic interests and make work according to the theme. While there is nothing hugely wrong with this, it becomes a problem when these themed group exhibitions become the norm rather than the exception. If the most accessible way for artists to exhibit their work is by making work that prescribes to set themes, they are far less likely to develop a meaningfully engagement with their actual artistic interests.
Themed open-call group exhibitions are an example of how development of the arts can be privileged over development through the arts. Having more exhibitions will not automatically lead to producing better art or better artists and this is an attitude that seems to underlie, and undermine, exhibitions like Land Matters.
We all know that there are very few places to exhibit in Windhoek and we all take what opportunities we can. The solo shows that go up are usually the work of established artists who have the finances to risk on exhibitions. Young artists are left with only themed group shows to throw their energy at. There have been a couple of attempts at self-organised collaborative exhibitions where artists come together to exhibit works that aren’t necessarily of a single theme but speak interestingly to one another. Thoroughfare at Fresh ‘n Wild was one such exhibition.
Land Matters was an important exhibition, but is it really the only option? What kind of artistic landscape would Namibia have if artists chose their own themes and curators responded to their artistic choices, instead of the other way around? What if artists collaborated on matters that moved them, rather than simply submitting work to whoever made the loudest ‘open-call’?
The verbal hype surrounding Land Matters expounded on the role of “artists as agents of social change” framing our local artists as mediums of Namibia’s collective conscious (Huckmann; Viljoen, 2013). If we want our artists to be spokespersons, or agents of transformation, it is their artistry and creativity that should be given room to develop, not their capacity to respond to prescription.