Nashilongweshipwe Jacques Mushaandja is an artist from Katutura, Windhoek. His archive of work spans music, performance art, writing, historical research, performance as research, and theory, as well as organising and education. He is a traverser of worlds: studying towards a PhD in Cape Town, organising workshops, publications and festivals between Germany and Namibia, pursuing a busy life as performance artist, and taking up residencies and performing at festivals across Europe and the continent. This piece, based on a conversation with Mushaandja, explores some of the historical and present relations and connections that Namibia is navigating and resisting through cultural work.
Namibian society bears the distinct marks of two colonial powers: Germany and South Africa. The former almost everyone knows. The latter (to South Africans at least) is lesser known. Also lesser known (again by South Africans) are the multiple histories of solidarity and movement between the two territories. The anticolonial guerrilla warfare genius of resistance hero Jakob Marengo – who united African people across so-called tribal affiliations and national borders and led over fifty battles against German and British colonisers between 1904-1907 – rings no bells in South African memory. Neither do the bells ring for Otillie Abrahams who, from Windhoek, initially went to high school in Cape Town and became active in revolutionary politics through the Unity Movement, as well as underground formations, before she and her husband Kenneth fled to escape the clutches of the apartheid police.
When asked how he understands himself and his own movements in relation to these histories, Mushaandja said that he was born in “South Africa, Suid-Wes, South West Africa, the fifth province,” before Namibia was independent. Beyond his birth he says there are many layers to the relations between these places. “Obviously [there is] apartheid, but also many other things that are exchanged on so many different levels; some things that we don’t even notice. For example, in music that is distinctly known as South African, if you study that genealogy you will find it elsewhere across Southern Africa. You will find it in Malawi, you will find it in Mozambique, you will find in Namibia.”
These reflections point toward the problematic role South Africa has played, and continues to play, in the Southern African region – historically drawing people as labourers from these places and absorbing their cultural and economic production. For Mushaandja “it’s an odd relationship. It’s familiar and unfamiliar.” One of the major contradictions of colonialism.
Another is that which we are seeing in this moment now, where the neo-colonial nations are pouring more money into the soft power machines that fund arts and culture development on the continent. Of course, this has been happening for many decades, but I wonder if there is something particular about the present and what that might be.
In Namibia’s relation to Germany, Mushaandja suggests that the increase in collaborative projects between the two countries is largely “because the case, the issue of reparations has gained a lot of public attention in the last few years. Even outside these two countries, people are talking about Germany’s first genocide. So, in a way, for me, that’s Namibia’s decolonial turn. The fact that those Nama Herero activists have managed to push this far. And only when, in Hamburg, we were protesting saying ‘Decolonise Hamburg! Reparations Now! Decolonise Namibia!’ I realised, oh, this is our decolonial turn. Because I was always waiting for it. Kanti (but), it’s been happening. These activists have been pushing.”
The fact that the current increase in projects or funding with the German stamp comes at the very moment (as a response to) what Mushaandja suggests is Namibia’s decolonial turn – is obviously troubling. The Germans are on some ‘look busy, Jesus (the anticolonial revolt) is coming’ tip. And there’s something somewhat even more sadistic with this mode of business because of how its mandate, being bank-rolled by the Europeans, is obviously to create collaborative art out of the neo-colonial contradiction, rather than resolve it.
“So, there is a risk of the Germans co-opting, because German administration is not a joke. Because obviously them being interested in the memory, culture, politics, means they are funding it… it automatically comes with control, they want to control the narrative. That’s not even a hidden thing. It’s there already by the virtue that they are funding it … But what I always say is that we need to organise ourselves, because they will always be like that.”
So many of the opportunities that African artists have to meet with each other and to travel internationally come through or are facilitated by the Goethe Institutes of this world. For Mushaandja, who has been to many gatherings, workshops, festivals and conferences in Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere, funded by European capital, in these spaces it is of central importance that African artists go to these gatherings with our own agendas. Not even necessarily to disrupt or resist what the Europeans are trying to do, although that might be what is required. But to make sure that their agendas don’t distract us from what we need to do. When they remind us that “this is German taxpayers’ money” perhaps we need to remind them where colonial wealth actually comes from: That wealth has historically been produced by the labour of African people.
In response to all these dynamics, and channelling the revolutionary impulse of the question, Mushaandja asks what is to be done: “What do you do about it? What is your next strategy? How do you turn up tomorrow, position yourself and be like ‘I’m here bitches!?’”