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The fish that sees its water is getting shallow cannot be stranded

This exhibition departs from an observation of the recurrence of fish in contemporary Namibian art. We only have to attend a local exhibition or work through a collection of Namibian art and we are likely to find representations or engagement with fish or other water resources. This observation begs for a curatorial intervention reflecting on the ways in which fisheries and water cultures have been historically expressed in Namibian art. The title ‘the fish that sees its water is getting shallow cannot be stranded’ is a popular African proverb which metaphorically and literally speaks to experiences of survival, livelihoods and mobility. It emphasizes both the fish and water as relational dynamics that are marked by movement.

This exhibition is the first volume of many to follow, presenting a discursive and historical outlook on how artists in Namibia’s post-coloniality are thinking with and through images of fish, water and the natural environment. It is a collection of prints, photography, mixed-media works, installations, music, performances, documentation of previous artwork and literature relating to the political and socio-economic uses of oceans, rivers, reservoirs, springs, lakes and groundwater.

One of the themes in this show is the climate crisis and natural disasters such as the regular floods in northern Namibia as seen in Shomwatala Shivute’s Efundja. Here, we are invited to think of Namibia as a regular site of floods and droughts, two extremes that are caused by changing climatic conditions. Littering comes to mind as one of the contributing factors to the climate crisis. Julia Hango’s installation titled Alien Invasion is a pile of trash that they collected in preparation for this exhibition as an artist who lives both at the coast and inland.

Samuel Mbingilo’s popular print Rain Callers can be found in various public and private art collections in Namibia. Mbingilo’s supernatural figures (half-human, half-fish) in ritual, drumming and dancing reminds us of the ancient African mythologies and spiritualities relating to rain making practices including the metaphysical resources of water. This celebration of rain and water is echoed in a choreographic and sonic intervention titled Water by Gift Uzera, Muningandu Hoveka, Joanne Sitler and Diolini at the Owela Festival (2019).

The soundtrack of this exhibition is a playlist of various songs about Yemayá, the Yoruba orisha of motherhood and the sea. This water spirit is not only celebrated in West Africa, its trans-Atlantic reaches include Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America. These historic migrations which cannot only be reduced to the slave trade era are deeply entangled with countless migrants who die trying to cross the Mediteranean sea. Jo Rogge’s mixed-media work The other migrants were African and didn’t know how to swim offers an emotive and sensitive portrayal of this painful reality. For many Africans, and Black people in particular, the ocean and water in general is charged with memories and lived experiences of pain, trauma and loss.

Kay Cowley prints and storyboard documents her 1999/2000 installation In search of the Moneyfish, “an allegorical journey undertaken by SilverMoonBeam fish, and a cast of fish characters”. This is a story that uses the world of fish as metaphor to speak to a people’s wishes and dreams deferred by the bureaucratization of public resources. This story also speaks loudly to the title of this exhibition, which is the survival and resilience of the living despite the odds. Shomwatala Shivute’s photographs moMeya and Olutenda both show scenic views of a ship at the Luderitz port and the railway, hinting towards the extractive nature of racial capitalism and its continuities in the post-coloniality of Namibia. These photographs evoke Namibia’s baggage- the plundering of natural resources through political schemes such as Fishrot and the baggage of history. If we think of Luderitz as a historic site of forced labor, concentration camps and genocide of indigneous people, have we ever asked what the water at Shark Island remembers? Two bodies of work that attend to this question are the photographic and performance works by Veronique Mensah and Tuli Mekondjo. Mensah’s series titled Daughter of Molly draws on her autobiography and Nama material culture in relation to Luderitz’s spatial memory of colonial violence. Reflecting on the same geography, Tuli Mekondjo’s Oudjuu wo makipa etu looks at traumatic histories, matrilineal relations and colonial labor. Tuli Mekondjo, Cowley, Shivute and Mensah’s focus on Luderitz all invite us to take seriously national questions of the redistribution of land, restorative justice and healing.

Sea water holds healing qualities in various Namibian and African cultures and we see this potential in Julia Hango’s new series of mixed media works. This series emphasizes fluidity and movement as central to our environmental awareness. In Hango’s ecofeminist imagination, the ocean is treated as a site of human origins as much as it is a source of medicine.

There is also a question of food security echoed in the additional images and objects collected from different Namibian artists. These include Ishmael Shivute’s outdoor metal sculpture and Hercules Viljoen’s acrylic painting on eucalyptus wood. Fish as a traditional and religious symbol is also depicted regularly in Elia Shiwohamba and Peter Mwahalukange’s prints sold at local markets in Windhoek and Swakopmund.

Curated by Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja

This exhibition was made possible through a collaboration between Owela Liev Arts Collective Trust and The Project Room Namibia.

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