“The Past, Present and Future of Namibian Heritage”

24 Dec 2018 - 12:45


The conference "The Past, Present and Future of Namibian Heritage" took place at the University of Namibia from 28-30 August 2018. It was facilitated and organised by the Museum Association of Namibia (MAN) together with the University of Namibia (UNAM), the University of Basel (UBAS) and the Carl Schlettwein Stiftung. The invitation stated the conference's aim, as "to learn lessons from the Past, review our Present practices and plan for the Future (…) by listening and learning from each other" and "building a common vision". Among the presenters were scholars, cultural producers, museum practitioners and visual and sound artists from southern Africa and Europe. APC fellows Regina Sarreiter, Anette Hoffmann, Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja Sakaria and Memory Biwa, who held a postdoc at APC in 2013-14, presented their work during the three days of intense and vivid debate.

Memory Biwa (University of Namibia) and Regina Sarreiter (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin) took the eve of the third return of human remains from Germany to Namibia as an entry point to explore how the violent history of German colonialism still informs public debates and protest and how it figures in artistic and institutional practices in Windhoek and Berlin. They examined the im/possibilities of developing strategies to interrogate disciplinary formations that engender silences and a 'delayed engagement with postcoloniality'.

Discussing the recently-opened new National Museum in Windhoek/Namibia and the to-be-opened Humboldt-Forum in Berlin/Germany their presentation considered two major national museum projects that are involved with the return case. Biwa and Sarreiter reflected on the ways these institutions deal with restitution and asked how to counter the rigid frame of museum politics. As a different approach they introduced the transnational project Artificial Facts ( that employed activation as an approach to describe how collections/archives were brought into public appearance and are reframed. Beyond a mere description the project set in motion objects and people to engage different subject constellations in Cape Town (South Africa), Porto-Novo (Benin) and Dresden (Germany). They showed how these moments of activation have imminent reverberations from (momentarily) perceptible shifts in the discourse on colonialism in institutions and the public in Namibia and Germany. This gives an impetus to the notion that these enactments mobilize specific discourses on colonialism into the future.

APC associate researcher Anette Hoffmann, who held a Volkswagen fellowship at Humboldt University in 2018, presented her new work on the collection of the Austrian anthropologist Rudolph Pöch who amassed an enormous collection of ethnographic objects, human remains, photographs, cinematographic and phonographic recordings during his travels in southern Africa in 1908-9. Pöch's collection has become known in southern Africa mainly as a ghastly depository of human remains of people who he saw as Bushmen. Yet there are other objects in this collection that may be of interest for Namibian historians, for museums, interested scholars and source communities. Apart from introducing the collection and the location of the different objects in five Viennese institutions to the participants at the conference, Hoffmann presented new translations of the acoustic recordings in Nharo that are part of this collection. One of these recordings speaks directly to colonial practices of collecting, which often actually were practices of appropriation and/or stealing. This specific recording in which a speaker requested his knife back, questions practices of research on the provenance of objects, which, to date, are mostly based on the written records in the museum, and which exclude the positions of those whose objects were brought to the museum. With a focus on sound archives as providing clues for the research on collecting, Hoffmann's paper added a fresh perspective to the debate on decolonial practices of research around colonial collections.

With his performative piece, "Museums at Concentration Camps: Concerning Institutional Violence and Intergenerational Trauma", Mushaandja presented a critical reflection on public art archive and education in Namibia since 1990. His critique is directed towards the conventional representations performed by dominant cultural production in (mostly government funded) art schools, museums, galleries and theatres in the democratic Namibia. Mushaandja argued that the roles of these contemporary cultural institutions remain untransformed and deeply violent to the communities they serve. When, he asks, do we begin to disrupt the rigid, one-dimensional, rehearsed, diluted, protocol-observing, inconsistent, dusty, inaccessible collections and reproductions of sameness? At what point in our democracy do we actually transgress the boundaries of the disembodied and passive art history and education, is another question Mushaandja brought forward? In an attempt to answer his questions, Mushaandja suggests that we commit ourselves to an active and reflective practice of solidarity in the fight against heteropatriarchal racist classist ableist culture of divide and rule. Mushaandja requested the audience to re-think and re-embody concepts of 'publicness', of agency and ownership, so as to enable queer resistances and rituals in the processes, productions and pedagogies of performance, art, and visual culture.