Prospects for a Decolonial and Creative FutureArticle
Twenty-three objects from the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin were returned to Namibia in May 2022, just in time for the opening of the Museum of Namibian Fashion in Otjiwarongo. Stefan Müchler paid the museum a visit.
Namibia, Windhoek, Independence Memorial Museum: The glass elevator on the left side of the monumental bronze-colored building quickly brings the visitors from the ground level to the upper floors of the museum. To mark the arrival in Windhoek of 23 objects from the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) in Berlin, the National Museum of Namibia and the Museums Association of Namibia (MAN) has invited journalists to a press conference here in the Independence Memorial Museum, a deeply symbolic place. The museum stands in the middle of the city, next to the Christ Church. And it is here that an equestrian monument was erected in 1912, a larger than life-sized bronze statue of a corporal in uniform on horseback. The monument was intended to honor the "brave German warriors" who lost their lives during the colonial wars of the German Empire against the Herero and Nama peoples. It was removed from its original location in 2009 and not long afterward set up again nearby, only to be taken down one last time and stored securely behind the walls of the Alte Feste, an old fortress near the museum. Where the German colonial-era horseman once stood, there is now a statue of Sam Nujoma, the first president of Namibia. The Independence Memorial Museum is dedicated to anti-colonial resistance against the German Empire and the armed struggle for the liberation of Namibia, which ultimately resulted in independence from the Republic of South Africa in 1990. The museum is cooperating with the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) on an ongoing review of the German collection's colonial past, but their work together extends far beyond that.
Opening of the Museum of Namibian Fashion in Otjiwarongo © SPK / Stefan Müchler
Since 2019, scholars from Berlin and Namibia have been conducting a new study of a part of the museum collection in a pioneering project organized by the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museums Association of Namibia. For Julia Bintner, an Austrian provenance researcher with the Ethnologisches Museum and co-director of the project, working with the Namibians offered an opportunity above all to listen and learn: "The research topics that we initially developed at the Ethnologisches Museum arose from our conviction that we have a responsibility to understand the colonial contexts in which the objects were acquired. Our Namibian research partners showed us that it's equally important to look ahead and develop creative visions for the future. Hence the name of our joint project: 'Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures'."
The new study focuses on 23 objects selected from the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. They include historical items of everyday use, pieces of jewelry, tools and articles of clothing. These items were acquired before and during German colonial rule over Namibia (1884–1919) and are part of a collection of roughly 1,400 objects. Research into their provenance has been underway since the beginning of 2018, with Namibian scholars joining the effort when the collaborative project started in 2019. The collection objects were appropriated in ways that reflected colonial relationships and sometimes involved great violence. They illustrate the creativity and artistic skills of their original makers and are therefore an important source of inspiration for contemporary artists and designers.
"The process of selecting the items wasn't easy for us," says Nehoa Hilma Kautondokwa of MAN, one of the experts who helped to carry out the research in Berlin. "In many cases, I had never seen real objects of those types before, only illustrations." To start with, the research group looked at all of the museum's records of the collection's material cultural heritage from Namibia. Work then continued in the storage rooms, where each of the approximately 1,400 objects was closely examined. Given the sheer quantity of items, the team had to develop a set of criteria in order to make a selection. First, they focused on identifying objects that the National Museum of Namibia didn't have in its collection.
They also wanted to assemble a range of objects from a broad geographical area in order to represent many different communities. "We took an inclusive approach with regard to age and sex, among other criteria. This way, we could make sure there would be objects that children can relate to, as well as men and women," says Kautondokwa. "And of course, we also paid attention to the condition of the objects in terms of conservation. So we excluded objects that might be damaged during shipment because of their material composition. In those cases, we have to find other ways of making them accessible to people in Namibia."
A large grant from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung made it possible to transport the 23 objects to Namibia. The first phase of the project, which has recently been completed, focused on strengthening Namibia's museum sector. Specifically, this meant renovating the storage site of the National Museum of Namibia and establishing a new Museum of Namibian Fashion. In addition, the Gerda Henkel Stiftung is providing funding for a conservator and a museologist at the National Museum and supporting the museum with capacity-building workshops and materials to use for the preventive conservation of the collection. Over the long term, there are plans to hold workshops at the National Museum featuring Namibian historians and oral historians, activists, cultural workers, heritage practitioners and artists, who will reactivate and document the knowledge and other forms of immaterial cultural heritage connected with the objects, such as historical techniques and materials.
When the project was first launched in 2019, MAN had already planned to make the museums more relevant to the Namibian population, because the target audience up to that point had mainly been tourists. In addition to music and sports, there was to be a greater focus on fashion. "When we started working with the objects in Berlin, we noticed that a lot of them fall into the category of clothing, and we immediately saw them as an important source of inspiration. So when we were making our selection, we also tried to find objects that would help us establish a museum for Namibian fashion," says Kautondokwa.
A museum for Nambian Fashion
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the shipment of the objects from Berlin, and as a result their arrival coincided with the opening of the Museum of Namibian Fashion in Otjiwarongo. On the day after the press conference that heralded the arrival of the objects, the Namibian-German project team got into a minibus provided by the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture for the three-and-a-half-hour trip to the fashion museum. They were joined by a few Namibian fashion designers who had helped arrange the museum's first exhibition.
The road from Windhoek to the city of Okahandja, about 70 kilometers north, has been widened in recent years and is now Namibia's first highway, the A1, with two lanes in each direction. The most important roads in the country meet here: the Trans-Kalahari Corridor, which runs east to west from Pretoria (South Africa) through Botswana and on to Walvis Bay in Namibia, and the Tripoli-Cape Town Highway, which runs through middle and northern Africa and is still unfinished in some areas. The A1 ends in Okahandja, making the city an important stop for travelers looking to stock up before continuing northward. The next 180 kilometers of road to Otjiwarongo is basically a straight route through open savanna.
Mannequins, each dressed in knee-length dress and apron, or shirt, pants and suspenders.
Exhibits at the Museum of Namibian Fashion in Otjiwarongo. © SPK / Stefan Müchler
The small town of Otjiwarongo is often used as a starting point for trips to the Etosha National Park, and now it boasts its first exhibition center, the Museum of Namibian Fashion.
"As fashion designers, we finally have a place to show our creations. Here we can also learn what the clothing of our ancestors looked like and use that as inspiration for new things," says fashion designer Cisla Rukoro.
Just prior to the opening, she is making some final small improvements to the dress she has designed, cut and sewn. She also adds a light scarf, fastens a brooch in the middle of an impressive headdress and arranges the sash. For Cisla Rukoro, a Namibian who speaks the Herero language, traditional Herero clothing has a very special significance, and she wants to maintain an awareness of that meaning and preserve it for future generations. She has also designed the magnificent dark blue dress that she is wearing to the opening.
The fashion museum has been carefully set up and furnished over the preceding months. It is located in a former residential building and comprises six galleries, each dedicated to a separate theme. The first important object is located in the entrance area: an old Singer sewing machine. In addition to being a symbol of fashion design, it has a personal connection for Ndapewoshali Ashipala, the director of the Museum Association of Namibia. "I was given this sewing machine as a teenager by my mother, so it has a very special significance to me. I created my first complete outfit with it. Now I have an electric machine – so I gave this one to the museum on loan."
Ashipala has a dual mission: to bring life to historical clothing and accessories for museum visitors, and to show contemporary designs inspired by Namibia's rich history and cultural diversity. She wants to inspire young Namibian creatives to make use of these cultural roots in developing wearable products that embody a unique Namibian identity. "The museum has a whole section where we show items, such as handbags, inspired by the 23 objects that have now been brought to Namibia," she says. In addition to creating pieces for the exhibition, fashion designers will be able to sell their creations in the museum shop. As people in Namibia become reconnected with colonial collections from Berlin and Windhoek, they are clearly being inspired to make new cultural creations, which opens up prospects for a decolonial and creative future.
The historical collections from Namibia at the Ethnologisches Museum were mostly acquired during the German colonial period (1884-1919), but there are also pieces collected much earlier. These are the 23 objects selected by the Namibian expert group researching in Berlin.