Questioning What Comfort Is?
It started as a politically inspired project and became a thought provoking statement that questions individual inner perspectives. Ndasuunje Papa Shikongeni is about to open his first photographic exhibition at the National Art Gallery of Namibia, titled ‘Inspiration through the lens – Home is where the heart belongs’. The images, stirring and beautiful, are contradictory; warm yet chilling. The story behind these images, as Papa Shikongeni tells it, is the heart of this collection.
As a visual artist with experience in printmaking, painting, sculpting and more, as well as a musician, Papa Shikongeni notes that it was his dear friend and renowned late Namibian photographer, Tony Figueira, who inspired him to start his photographic project. “Tony reminds me of my father because, my father used to take photographs during those rallies, during the time of liberation, I still have his camera, that I inherited. I always thought I will do a photographic exhibition. I respect and honour my icon, my inspiration Tony, for saying ‘just do it’.”
“I looked at that house, I went closer, there’s a bicycle and then I realised, ‘somebody lives in here’.”
Papa Shikongeni explains that he hopes this exhibition will act as a reminder of our common humanity through its powerful message. He explains that his first idea for the exhibition was not what the message turned out to be once it was done. “The title was first ‘Conflict of Interest’, meaning that I was looking to the politicians to look at these houses and really speak to your inner sense and emotions and think that this is how they have to live. If we saying that we want to lead our people, but it seems we are leading people with materialism.”
“I’m taking pictures and they said ‘no, there’s nice ones at our village, at our farm there’.”
As an artistic and social activist Shikongeni, was at first documenting the physically entrenched inequality in Namibia through exposing houses in informal settlements. In travelling to find these houses, he uncovered something beautiful through the people that live within them.
While travelling to Opstal farm, on the road to Spitzkoppe, where he photographed the image used on the exhibition poster, “I looked at that house, I went closer, there’s a bicycle and then I realised, ‘somebody lives in here’. I was really feeling bad, I just felt that, ‘can a person live like this’? Then I realised, it might be my perspective, let me start asking.”
Papa Shikongeni explains that a group of women he met selling crystal stones, offered to show him the best houses in the area after they saw him taking photographs. “I’m taking pictures and they said ‘no, there’s nice ones at our village, at our farm there’.” Papa explains that when he arrived at the village, Aunty Tanga showed him around, “she wanted me to see what it was like, saying, ‘these guys are thinking of extending their flat’. When you look at this, there’s space to extend, you understand. So then I asked my Aunt Tanga, what do you think of what I’m trying to do? And she said to me, ‘home is where the heart belongs’ and my mind just changed. We always think differently when we look at things but we don’t look in the hearts of the people.”
“Then a Mama and told me, ‘I don’t get stressed, I don’t get high blood pressure, I don’t owe nobody, I have nothing and my heart is at peace but you people are suffering and dying where you are, and you think you have a good big house and have big cars and what?’ The moment is not money, it is the people.”
Papa Shikongeni’s journey to document life in forgotten places and corners of Namibia, took another turn in perspective when he travelled to Gibeon. “We the generation and the system of today, we are not using our hearts, we are using our eyes. We want luxury places to show to others, it’s not what your heart wants. I realised I took a wrong perspective, we feel people are suffering but the people don’t suffer. When I travelled to Gibeon, you know this is where “Hendrik Witbooi” came from, you see the warrior, the legend but then you look at the people, you think what is the legacy left behind? But then I saw, no, it might be we think there is poverty. Then a Mama and told me, ‘I don’t get stressed, I don’t get high blood pressure, I don’t owe nobody, I have nothing and my heart is at peace but you people are suffering and dying where you are, and you think you have a good big house and have big cars and what?’ The moment is not money, it is the people.”
“Their society is richer because their wealth is the people. And wealth is when you go through struggle, even the lion goes through a struggle to catch prey, you understand.”
Travelling across Namibia, telling the stories of people create their homes, Papa Shikongeni found an renewed appreciation for the power of community. “The beauty of it was finding these people, sitting around that small fire together in the morning, having tea or coffee, and then you see the children, standing there for the heat of the sun. It reminded me of when I was a child. Their society is richer because their wealth is the people. And wealth is when you go through struggle, even the lion goes through a struggle to catch prey, you understand.”
Inspiration through the lens – Home is where the heart belongs will open at the National Art Gallery of Namibia on Thursday 22 June 2017 at 18h00 for 18h30 in the NAGN’s Main Gallery. It will be open until the 22 July 2017.
Written by Kirsty Watermeyer