Curating in Namibia
What our exhibitions curator Ms. Helen Harris had to say about curatorship in Namibia!
- Tell us about your work as National Art Gallery of Namibia (NAGN) curator?
I work as the Exhibitions Curator at the NAGN. In this position I curate and organize exhibitions of contemporary art in collaboration with the curatorial coordinator, the collections curator and our fabulous public relations officer. In turn I also assist with the curation of exhibition from the permanent collection of the NAGN. I handle the scheduling of all exhibitions and work with the technical staff to layout and hang/display the work. For each exhibition I work closely with the artist/artists to curate, promote and design the final show.
The NAGN has a tight budget and as such a lot of creativity and innovation is required to make exhibitions successful. A large portion of this work is administrative and requires you to be exacting, keep all your ducks in a row, but once you have this down you can get to the good stuff. In all the haze of quotes, lists, contracts, forms etc. it’s easy to forget that the most important aspect of the job is to spend time with the art.
The real work usually kicks off with visiting the artist/artists at their studios or homes. Most Namibian artists cannot afford a dedicated studio space so we end up in a bedroom or kitchen. It’s also fascinating to see how the works look in different contexts, from the studio/domestic setting to the austere gallery walls. It’s a great way to get to grips with individuals, one-on-ones like this keep you focused.
Sometimes if we are working with an artist from out of town studio visits are not possible and we end up using Skype, email, whatsapp and various other forms of social media. These first few encounters establish a relationship that needs to be open, communicative and trusting. Each exhibitor and exhibition is different and in each instance the role of the curator needs to be re-negotiated. As Jacques Mushaandja, from the John Muafangejo Arts Centre, put it in a recent interview with the Namibian, “One of my main challenges is representing someone else. How can I represent the individual? What are my ethical responsibilities? How much voice is the artist and not my own?” http://www.namibian.com.na/50483/read/The-Art-Of-Curatorship
- How does working in a society with a handful of curators and many artists affect your curatorial philosophy?
The lack of arts administrators in Namibia is felt across the board, not only are there very few curators, there are also very few galleries, and almost no spaces, commercial or public, dedicated to the arts (workshops, studios, artists-hubs etc.) This means that the NAGN, and by extension its curators, end up being stretched very thin. In this situation people often try to serve everyone, try and curate ‘democratically’, give everyone a chance. I have found that there is some merit to this approach. In the annual calendar we try to include at least one ‘open-call’, juried, group exhibition. These exhibitions allow anyone to submit their work. The results are varied and the exhibitions always eclectic. These exhibitions also serve to shake things up a little and give new-comers a chance to leave their mark. However too many of these open-call exhibitions results in a tuneless, tired rodeo that bores Windhoek and reduces all the work on show to a meaningless stream of white-noise.
A really important part of curating at the NAGN involves balancing this democratic spirit with the careful promotion of professionals. If no one is promoted as an individual, on their own merit, we will simply end up with a country of accomplished hobbyists, charming but dull. Namibian art has the incredible potential to tell us something new about the world and about the context we live in. As curators we need to find ways in which these perspectives are given the space to flourish. Even when this means promoting the individual over the group. At the end of the day promoting individuals in this way only serves to strengthen the group.
- What role does the curator play in the preservation and appreciation of art, more importantly how does your role contribute to the formation of a Namibian consciousness of visual art and craft?
To answer this I’m going to steal an idea from an artist and friend of mine, it boils down to ‘assigning value’. It’s easy to throw your hands up and lament the lack of arts appreciation in Namibia and at times the situation does seem quite dire. However the value of Namibian art and artists will never be appreciated if we do not do the courtesy of respecting the value that is there. Assigning value is one of the key roles of arts managers. This is done in many ways, but as curators at the NAGN we mainly do this through exhibiting, collecting and selling art.
As a public institution we are in the rather strange position of being both a museum for our permanent collection and a commercial gallery for contemporary art. This split focus often trips us up in our planning and research as the different exhibitions require quite different approaches. However what these two types of exhibition have in common is the display of art for public consumption, whether in the form of simply looking and appreciating or for the purpose of purchasing. In her introduction to the anthology ‘Exhibtion’, Lucy Steeds describes the potential of exhibitions to be “discursive formations with multiple fields of possibility, activating critical exchanges about art that span the local and worldwide” https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/exhibition. In other words ‘the exhibition’ can be a site of dialogue that can re-locate the center and critically engage with our local and global context. This is the sentiment that I hope permeates the exhibition making that takes place at the NAGN.
Of course this goes beyond the simple matter of putting works on plinths and walls, the creation of discursive platforms means that a lot of time must be dedicated to the production of text, meaningful dialogue in public setting (art talks, walk abouts etc.), and making sure that audiences make it to the gallery. These things are key components of spreading the word, ‘assigning value’.
- Tell us about your unforgettable high and low moments since you embarked on this journey of curatorship?
Maybe to put the following statement in context I should first mention that in 2016 the NAGN held 28 exhibitions both at the gallery in Windhoek and in other locations in Namibia and abroad. Basically it’s been a rollercoaster with more highs and lows than I can remember. For the most part though the day after an exhibition has officially opened is a good one. Somehow the ritual of an opening realigns the gallery and for a moment everything seems to be on track. A recent low involved an exhibition of artworks being couriered from Swakopmund to Windhoek. One work simply did not arrive. Luckily it only took a couple of phone calls and half a day to track it down but I think that half day definitely makes it into the top-ten unforgettable lows.
- As a curator how do you know that an exhibition is done and dusted?
When the art talks and presentations are all over, the works have all been taken away (back to storage/back to the artist/to a new home), everyone from the caterer to the artist has been paid, the walls have been patched and re-painted, the posters in town have faded past recognition, the flyers have all been thrown away, the reviews have been read, re-read and discussed ad nauseam, and when no one really has anything to say about it anymore. I guess I’m saying it takes a very, very long time and if we’ve done our jobs well hopefully they never truly will be.
- What do you envision for the curator role in the Namibian society; let’s say in the next 5 years?
I’ve never been very good at predicting the future, but I can tell you what I would like to see and what I believe is possible (not easy, but possible). In five years I would like to see a wider pool of curators who work on their own projects but also collaboratively. These curators would come from all the existing institutions and quite a few would work independently. Their work would have bolstered the private sector and they will have fostered a viable commercial platform for contemporary Namibian art. These curators would have the time and training to add meaningfully to documents of contemporary Namibian art in the form of articles and catalogues. Most of all however they would work along-side artists, not behind, bellow, in front of or beneath, but next to them.
Alright, so that sounds like a bit of a pipe dream, but wouldn’t it be nice?