by Elize van Huyssteen
The Annual Visual Art Museum Program or AVAMP 2015 exhibition recently opened at the National Art Gallery. The title Re-presenting Photography in Namibia, which is nearly as long as the period the exhibition will be running (3 months) seeks to give a broad historic overview of the origin and development of photography in Namibia.
AVAMP has held regular exhibitions since 2011. These are primarily made up of works selected from the permanent collections of the Arts Association Heritage Trust (AAHT) and the National Art Gallery of Namibia (NAGN). Re-presenting Photography expanded its reach and included new categories of work alongside the AAHT and NAGN collections. It included works by artists who introduced the medium of photography to Namibia and those with a longstanding commitment to the medium. It also included photographs that initiate dialogue between photographer and object and photographers who have photographed themselves. Finally it included photographers who have something different and new to say (or show) on the topic of representation. The exhibition was thus designed to act as an agent for social change.
Out of this selection, three guiding phases in the exhibition become apparent. That of ‘photography as a recording mechanism’ then ‘photography as journalism’ and finally ‘photography as a democratic process’.
Sequentially, the period 1860 to 1950 represents recorded colonial history, through colloidal photography – but also indicates a fetishist gaze at the newly discovered territory and its inhabitants. These black and white photographs signify a certain mindset, perception and worldview and were based on a predetermined view of the racial other through which the newly discovered land was viewed and represented.
Documentary photography as a tool for the visual representation of the apartheid years announced and addressed the wrongs of the time. The camera became an effective weapon against injustice, and the photographer became an agent for social change. Photographers such as John Liebenberg and Tony Figueira bravely addressed the prejudices of the political systems of the 1980s.
The 1990s saw the emergence of experimental projects, such as the use of disposable cameras given to amateur photographers. Rick Rohde, a Scottish anthropologist living amongst the community at Okombahe, distributed 24 disposable cameras to ‘community’ members to portray their personal experiences of rural life – Matida sida ra mûgu. This unusual approach was aimed at reversing the predominantly Eurocentric view of anthropological photography by giving ‘locals’ the opportunity to represent themselves.
Contemporary photography signifies plural accounts of truth by allowing more inclusive views and different angles of perspective – perhaps away from aesthetics towards ethics. Kyle Weeks sensed the power imbalances inherent in most representations of the Himba culture. By handing over the shutter- release of his camera to the Himba men, he allows for expression through self-portraiture and thus reduces his influence over the outcome.
Looking back it appears that a slight turn of the viewfinder has occurred and that the sharp black and white photographs of the past are developing into gradual shades of grey. Re-presenting the journey of photography in Namibia, one can see that a photograph taken by a European explorer in the late 19th century still poses important questions concerning identity, gender inequality and cultural bias even though the work is sequentially situated in a biased, unquestioning past. Bringing these very different photographic works together helps to raise questions that would perhaps remain unasked if the works were only seen in isolation.