Hearing the past within the Namibian present

11 Sep 2013 - 15:45

By Katleho Shoro

On the evening of 5 August, 2013, Anette Hoffmann's exhibition, What We See: Reconsidering an Anthropometrical Collection from Southern Africa, was launched at the Franco-Namibian Cultural Centre (FNCC) in Windhoek, where it runs until the end of September.

I arrived a few hours before the opening to be greeted by a bunch of school children who learn French at the centre during the day as well as an exhausted curator and designer (Jos Thorne) drilling in the final nails to the exhibition they'd spent several days and many hours installing. But by 6.30pm, a different energy had been injected into both of them as well as the space they had been working so hard to transform. We were greeted that night by an assembly of research participants and community delegates who had made their way from Keetmanshoop in southern Namibia, but also, among other visitors and diplomats from Germany and France, artists and translators, who had gathered to see the exhibition they had all in some way been part of.

The exhibition, which has been shown at the Iziko Slave Lodge in Cape Town, South Africa, and at the Basler Afrika Bibliographien in Switzerland, and other locations in Germany and Austria, was born out of Hoffmann's research into the collection of life-casts, photographs, voice recordings, diaries and measurements that formed part of Hans Lichtenecker's collection, which he amassed on a trip to Namibia in 1931. Lichtenecker, who fancied himself an artist rather than a scientist, created this archive to play his part in preserving one of the world's 'vanishing races'.

In 2007, Hoffmann, who has a PhD in cultural studies, traced the voice recordings Lichtenecker took of people in Namibia in the Berlin Phonogramm Archive. Not understanding the local languages, she asked native speakers to translate the recordings from 1931. Once the voices became heard, they turned into testimonies of the treatment experienced by the men and women during the recordings, cast making and photo shoots. Their testimonies bear witness to the violent and inhumane anthropometrical research methods and, at the same time, to the historical moment when this all happened.

Hoffmann also travelled to Namibia to search for potential witnesses and descendants of the affected people. In a video interview that forms part of the exhibition, the late counsellor, Moses Jacobs, recalls the event of the making of the casts, as recalled and relayed by his stepfather. The exhibition is a fragile space of images and voices, stories and portraits, historical documents and contemporary artefacts.

Although some of us were privy to these details beforehand, the exhibition itself underscored aspects of Hoffmann's research that writing as a research output simply fails to convey. Seeing photographs of a woman terrified of a life-cast method to which many had objected, seeing photographs of casts of people's faces neatly lined up while reading (on one of the wall panels) that people could not breathe while these life-casts were drying on their faces, allowed the research to be heard, understood and seen differently. These photographs are featured alongside artworks by Alfeus Mvula, Sanell Aggenbach, Mduduzi Xakaza, Mustafa Maluka and Lonwabo Kilani in direct conversation with Hoffmann's research, the voice recordings and written translations of poems and people's protests to Lichtenecker's work. Also included are snippets of interviews Hoffmann conducted with family members and friends of the people who became part of Lichtenecker's 'art'. All of these elements allow the visitor to momentarily step into Lichtenecker's archive and get a sense of its direct consequences on the lives of actual people.

After four years of touring internationally, the arrival of What We See in Namibia felt like a welcome homecoming for the project and a welcome way of looking at and hearing history within Namibia. The comments made in the opening speeches made constant reference to What We See offering a means of 'reconciliation' between the past and the present - offering the younger generation of Namibia tools to grapple with their country's past.

'It is not worth it to do harm to people who have wronged. Instead, reconciliation is the way forward,' said the final speaker, Salomon Isaak Witbooi, who was also one of the interviewees featured in the exhibition. He said that the people involved in researching the exhibition had been through a sad experience, but that the results of that tough experience were good.

Not only did the exhibition allow members of the public to become aware of the availability of sound recordings within the archives in Namibia, but according to various comments in the visitors' book, more creatively-assembled exhibitions that contain extensive research about different aspects of the Namibia's past would be met with eager ears and eyes.