A Namibian Artist Studies in Norway (Herman Mbamba)
Published: Flamingo Dec 2004
“It is difficult to give away your plate in order to gain freedom.” This statement by the young Namibian artist Herman Mbamba, sums up his view on the art in Namibia. Most artists here struggle with aspects of basic survival and have to make art, which sells so that they can put food on the table. This result is art that pleases tourists for its decorative and exotic look and not necessarily true art, which has something to say. Only once a nation has reached a state where this basic survival is ensured, can artists start exploring their creative freedom and produce more than mere ‘airport art’.
Born 1981 in the tiny village Gibeon, about 300km south of Namibia’s capital, Mbamba soon moved with his family to Windhoek, where his father is working as a warrant officer and his mother a domestic worker. After he completed his schooling he wanted to become an artist and enrolled in 1999 as a student at the John Muafangejo Art Centre. Jokingly he says: “That is when the trouble started…”.
Two years later he has impressed his teachers enough to be given the opportunity to participate in a three-month residency program at the Bat Art Centre in Durban, South Africa. At the age of twenty he set foot outside his home country for the first time in his life. This was a scary experience, as everything was new and different, but it also opened his eyes to many new things. This residency was followed by the participation in two Tulipamwe Artist Workshops (2002/2003) and in the Botswana based Thapong Artist Workshop in 2002. These workshops are international artists workshops, which offer the participants from all over the world a chance to interact and create art in a stimulating environment and are highly regarded by artists. Through working together with artists from different backgrounds and countries a lively exchange and learning process takes place and artists get inspired to experiment with new ideas or materials.
All this exposure to the outside world has led Mbamba to realise that he would like to further his education in the arts and move beyond Namibia’s limitations. He says: “Unfortunately Namibia’s possibilities are so limited and our government gives no support to artists who want to study. So I searched for different study opportunities all over the world via the Internet. I was lucky that I am computer literate and had access to the Internet, and could apply to different institutions. I am worried about the other artists, who do not have that – there is a real problem to access information in Namibia.”
His search and many applications paid off, and a few months later he was accepted to study art at the Statenskunstakademi in Oslo, Norway. “This is a big achievement for me, since they only give one scholarship a year to a student from a developing country, and they usually receive applications from all over the world. I had to send slides of my work, reasons for applying for the scholarship and fill out lengthy applications forms. When I got their letter confirming that I was chosen above all the other applications, I could not believe it!”
In August he returned to Namibia for the first time, after having studied and lived abroad ten months. He has now successfully completed his first year of the three-year degree course and was happy to return to his family and home country for the holidays. Typical for Mbamba’s visionary nature, he decided to also use this time to show his friends and fellow artists what he has been doing. He held an exhibition and slide show at the John Muafangejo Art Centre, his previous art school. The exhibition consisted of an installation of several stands wrapped up with the government-financed newspaper, the New Era. On top of the stands he positioned different items ranging from toy solders to painted images of political leaders like Nixon and Mugabe. At closer inspection one finds that he has subtly manipulated and changed things. He explains: “I am working with Identity and how quickly it can be hijacked. The works seem silent, but they are talking a lot if you take your time to look. I have placed the objects far enough apart so that the viewer is given enough time and space to consider each piece individually, as a fragment, before moving on to the next.”
Mbamba seems a bit disappointed, because very few local artists seemed to understand him and appreciate the willpower and hard work it took him to break free from the restrictions and limitations and grow as an artist. His art has become more intellectual, although he hopes to combine the western intellectual art with the wisdom and sensuality inherent in African art. “In Africa the mind, body and spirit are one, while in Europe everything is fragmented. I want to examine this fragmentation from an African point of view.” Says Mbamba.
Studying in Oslo has its own challenges. The biggest problem is the language barrier, but Mbamba says that by now he can more or less understand Norwegian. Another real struggle for Mbamba, son of a warm sunshine country, was to get used to the weather and the short daylight periods. On the other hand he appreciates what Norway has to offer: education, culture, access to information, great art exhibitions and concerts. Besides absorbing all he can learn about art, he also gets time to play soccer, which was his first love, and spend time with his girlfriend, who he met during his stay in Durban.
Mbamba admits that it was the most difficult decision to leave his country and family to study abroad, but he is very happy he has accepted the challenge. “I realise that what I knew was just a small drop and there is a whole ocean out there. Art is in a constant state of evolution. I hope to come back to Namibia, after I finished my degree, and be part in the creation of a new platform to promote positive change in the visual arts.”
(c) Imke Rust