Written by Hanne Marrot-Alpers, an art collector and owner of Omuntu Garden Namibia (Omaruru)
My view on art in Namibia is through the eyes of a Scandinavian permanent resident of this country and as we all know “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”. This is a significant statement because it means every person will gain different experiences from looking at the same object. When it comes to art, this is accentuated because the way we perceive art is hugely, perhaps uniquely, influenced by our education, our exposure to culture, our environment, our upbringing, the status artists have in our society, our parents view on art and the willingness of our country to invest in it.
My upbringing in Scandinavia was heavily in favour of art in all these categories. Therefore, there has never been any doubt in my mind that art does matter. Therefore, I choose to invest all my spare cash in original art work whenever and wherever I can. As a result I have over the last 7 years built up a Namibian Sculpture Collection and what has surprised me is that I am largely alone in this endeavor. I am not even in serious competition with the government, any of its wealthy business entrepreneurs or high level government officials. This then must specifically have to do with “The eye of the beholder”. To settle my curiosity about this issue I started to sell Namibian art and to arrange exhibitions of Namibian art abroad. I wanted to see whether I was an isolated case in seeing something of value in Namibian art, or whether it was the Namibian population in general that had a blind spot in this regard.
My experiment has taught me that people’s view on art has everything to do with our cultural upbringing and the way our countries invest in cultural artistic values. Interestingly an identical exhibition of Namibian artworks set in Vænersborg, Sweden and in Omaruru, Namibia in September 2013 resulted in 20 art works sold in Sweden and none sold in Omaruru. For safety’s sake I repeated this experiment in April 2014 where an exhibition of Alfeus Mvula’s prints and sculptures was the best selling ever in Vænersborg’s Konsthalls history.
This makes me question what it is we buy when we collect art? What is it we see that we are willing to pay for, when we can’t even recognize what it is we are buying and have no cultural relation to it ?
The fact that the Swedes had never seen the traditional African scenes depicted in the artwork they bought and had no relation to them whatsoever did not make them like it less. Equally, the fact that the Namibian audiences were very familiar with their own cultural motifs did not make them like Alfeus’s work more. This is important because it shows us that what we buy when we buy art is not a commodity. What we buy is the way an artist has communicated a message to us. No matter whether he is from a continent, a time or a culture familiar to us or not. Somehow a mysterious thread connects the hand of the artist to the eye of the beholder. This is a sacred connection transgressing cultures and centuries, Aren’t the paintings in the French Lascaux caves remarkably similar to the rock art found in Africa ? And why do some of us still admire these cave paintings thousands of years after their creation? I can’t come up with any better explanation than my own reason for buying art and that is simply – that it nourishes my soul.
At Alfeus Mvula’s art exhibition in Sweden. I met a Syrian refugee and I said to him: “This exhibition must be very
insignificant to you given the tragedy happening in your own country right now.” And to my surprise the answer was: “Oh no, on the contrary. If my country had paid attention to the appreciation of art in our society, we would never had been in this sad situation.“ To me this was a monumental answer – maybe we ignore art and the cultivation of art in a country like Namibia at our peril. The know the language of art is to be mentally, emotionally and spiritually open; to be tolerant and understanding of other realities. By learning the language of art, we learn to relate to the humanity in art, which like a mirror reflects our own selves. These insights give us the ability to handle mental, emotional and spiritual conflicts in a more constructive way. because we understand one another somehow. Is this why Sweden is known for being a country neutral in international conflicts and excelling in diplomacy? Is it due to this lack of cultural education and lack of cultivation of its own cultural values and investment in its own artists and art that corruption flourishes and that a country like Namibia is helplessly caught up in massive material consumption of short term foreign consumer products that are of little value? If it is so then I fear for the long term development and future of a population which sees little value in investing in its own artists. For it is not the money which is lacking ,it is in the cultivation of the eye of the beholder.