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Performance Artists Talk COVID-19 Impact

Namibia’s gig-based entertainment industry is one of the most hard-hit industries by the Covid-19 pandemic which currently has the country on lockdown. As per government regulation, no public gatherings are allowed and in the local entertainment industry, no public gathering means no income.

With events, performances and art installations cancelled or postponed, actors, make-up artists, filmmakers, theatre-makers, musicians, musicians, technical personnel and many other creative industry players are left jobless with bleak prospects.

Impact of Covid-19 on the arts sector

The Namibian creative industry has already been operating under tight financial conditions and with the impact of Covid-19, the live events and entertainment sector is most likely going to take longer to recover as social distancing restrictions are expected to keep people from going to the theatre or attend a concert for a long time- even with a flattened curve. As at now, there are no clear support measures in place to support the creative industry, especially from the side of the government.

“Because most of our income comes from large gatherings, creatives, artists, technicians and everyone forming part of our industry is feeling the pinch with most events been cancelled or postponed indefinitely,” says theatre practitioner, Zindri Swartz. “It’s ridiculous to state that our lives or the rent we have due are of no importance or lacks priority.”

Swartz says with the absence of a functional body or organization tasked with the protection of the rights of artists and with most artists having access to social security, artists cannot afford to take out loans on VAT, since they are barely able to sustain themselves.

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Zindri Swartz (Image: Provided)

“We are part of the informal sector and stand in solidarity with the marginalized and as such government should look into other effective solutions to aid this industry. We are tired of being treated like a stepchild by our own government but when it’s time for parades and celebrations, it is us they turn to. Perhaps we should in engage in a discussion on the way forward,” Swartz argues.

Adding to this, stage and screen make-up artist, Kulan Ganes says despite the whole world turning to the arts to keep sane during this time of uncertainty, artists continue being overlooked by the government and the private sector alike.

Ganes says the situation not only makes artists financially disabled but also has a huge toll on their mental health.

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Kulan Ganes (Image: Provided)

“The government should meet us halfway to find ways to provide for us without them losing out on an industry that actually contributes to the economy. Funding for postponed projects shouldn’t be withdrawn so that we can have work and an income when all this is over,” Ganes adds.

Actress and singer-songwriter Bianca Heyns says for most performers, like herself, creating is a career and not a mere leisure activity.

“Not only have I lost gigs but I personally have lost money and other opportunities that would have benefited me in future. For many of us creatives, we live by grabbing every opportunity we get, and now that gigs have been cancelled and moving forward I have found myself in a rather puzzling situation. My question is what is Namibia without the arts?” Heyns asks.

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Bianca Heyns (Image: Provided)

Using her voice and platform to an impact, Professional Speaker, Storyteller and Fitness Advocate Hermien Elago says since the lockdown, she has resorted to making a difference to an audience she cannot physically see or engage with, without the means of an income.

“The situation is testing my core values and my intentions about why I chose this profession to begin with. Plus, I no longer have an exact idea as to how far my stories will go, I do not know who they will touch and I have to trust my digital voice and the true value that I bring through the power of storytelling,” Elago says.

Feeling the pinch from cancelled gigs in the live music scene, Musician Shiruka says with music being her main source of income, she is left hopeless, especially since she is a non-Namibian.

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Shiruka (Image: Provided)

“I came to Namibia for studies and often I’d perform to pay for my studies. If it wasn’t for my talent, I don’t know how I would have some money to at least buy my groceries and basic goods,” Shiruka says.

Musician and filmmaker, Micheal Pulse, who also had the Namibian premiere of The White Line planned last month, says although he welcomes the stimulus package government has made available for the unemployed, it does not eliminate the problem that the art industry is one of the most neglected and under sourced sectors even though it is very impactful in informing and educating the masses in a very creative way.

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Micheal Pulse (Image: Provided)

“I think instead of payouts, there should be referendums and policies put in place that is there to uplift our creatives,” Pulse feels.

Celebrity make-up artist, Miss Jey Arts says no one was prepared for a pandemic, especially those in the entertainment and arts industry as there were numerous shows and appearances planned for the year.

“So many bookings and projects had to be put on hold. Maybe they might be totally cancelled. Unfortunately, there’s nothing one can do except hope that the aftermath will be much better,” Miss Jey says.

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Miss Jey Arts (Image: Provided)

Sadly in Namibia, Miss Jey adds, entertainment and arts is seen as a luxury instead and artists are therefore not considered as important.

“Most of us survive on payments after shows and we feed and support our children with the same payment, we pay rent, buy food and electricity with it. If only the government can put aside a package meant for the arts and entertainment industry, especially considering that it might take a good 5 to 6 months for events and shows to start taking place again,” Miss Jey explains.

In order for art to live, creatives are needed, and in order for creatives to live, they need to eat, says award-winning make-up artist Jay-Aeron.

“The one thing that keeps us together in the creative industry is intimacy. Intimacy with your make-up artist if you’re getting ready for a performance, intimacy with your scriptwriter/director if you’re a performer and intimacy with an audience, but none of that can happen with this pandemic,” Jay-Aeron adds.

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Jay-Aeron (Beanii Boy Photoworks)

Coping with Covid-19

Arts educator & writer Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja says social distancing as a safety measure has created a lot of isolation and segregation, although this is not what it intends to do.

“One main challenge right now is access to information is a huge challenge for many artists around the country who do not generally have a good internet connection,” Mushaandja says.

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Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja (Image: Julian Salinas)

However, Mushaandja adds Covid-19 has offered opportunities for the creative and cultural industries to claim their spaces in national discourse and care work.

“This moment provides an opportunity to use cultural work as a coping, survival and transformation mechanism,” Mushaandja adds.

On adapting to the current climate, Elago says she had to learn to make a difference to an audience that she cannot see in person and still to find a way “go out there” anyway.

“I know that this is what I am called to do. It is teaching me that if you are called for something you learn to adapt and adjust and still give the same value that I would have given had I been standing on a physical stage with an audience that I can actually see,” Elago says.

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Hermien Elago (Image: Provided)

Elago further adds that the public speaking fraternity has to learn that stages are not only physical platforms and that there is a need to learn how to go remote if the audience is suddenly forced to lockdown.

“The moral for me is we are being forced to adapt and adjust and understand that in this era, our stages take many forms,” she says.

Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja on Violent Art Institutions, Breaking Heteropatriarchy and Decoloniality

(Featured Image:  by Vilho Nuumbala- Performance of Eenganga: Translations & Trance Formation)

Having returned recently from a residency program in Germany, writer, artist, theatre practitioner, Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja has deepened his research and practice intersects on activism and movement formation.

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Mushaandja strongly believes theatre can help us polish our skills to be disciplined and reading theatre-makers. He says arts education, in general, is an important field that is generally undermined in Namibia. As a scholarly-artist, Mushaandja is always concerned not only at how many formally and informally trained artists we have, but also the low level of art knowledge production locally.

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(Image: Tina Schoenheit – performance of Odalate na iteke [opo kegonga kuye oshigongoti] at the Hamburg Ethnological Museum, Germany.)

“It’s not just about studying theatre and performance, it is also about producing and documenting knowledge that is relevant to the local context and obviously decolonizes,” Mushaandja says.

He sheds more light on the survival of theatre and writing in the Namibian context:

1. How realistic should a theatre production look?
I am not a fan of realistic productions because I feel that Namibian mainstream theatre is often stuck in this realism thing. Perhaps there is no one answer to this question because theatre is a creative praxis and every theatre maker has a different approach. I am however a fan of theatre that is deeply authentic to its context. I am a fan of theatre that breaks the rules of conventional theatre that transgressed boundaries, the theatre that is interdisciplinary and offers a new language of African theatre. This is not to say that theatre that does not do this is not realistic or good, this is mere preference. In general, theatre must help us connect, heal, imagine and transform our society.

2. Is it important to always keep producing new ideas or is it best to exploit existing ideas?
Absolutely new ideas. Especially for the Namibian context and where it finds itself 28 years of ‘freedom’. I always argue that freedom is not reflecting on our learning and culture. There has been a lot of recycling of old and foreign ideas. Old ideas can also be useful if approached with new energy and innovation.

3. Why should we care about the arts?
Imagine a world without the arts. I don’t wanna live in that world.

4. What are your thoughts on contemporary Namibian theatre?

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(Image by Britta Hars – performance of Mind your own closet at the Brazillian Cultural Centre in Maputo Mozambique)
It has come a long way. Having spent over 10 years in local theatre now, it is good to see audiences change and grow. I love that it is youth-driven. But something is to be said about the disappearing veterans of the theatre. What happens to most of them? Namibian theatre lacks innovation and critical engagement. I am still looking to see work that does not necessarily follow conventions of the black box. Theatre that is not script-based or top-down. Where is the theatre that explores new forms of publicness? Where is the cutting edge work?

1. What, in your opinion, is the great Namibian Screenplay/Stage play of the last decade?
I don’t have one yet. There are many:
• Eenganga: Translations & Trance Formation which was my MA creative research work.
• Tselane & The Giant by Veronique Mensah
• The State of Citizenshi.ph.t by myself & Oupa Sibeko
• Anima by First Rain Dance Theatre
• Ovakwanaidi by Tuli Mekondjo

2. What are the elements of a good play?
A play that shows authenticity, locality, participation, agency, transformation, voice, disruption, and openness, border crossing, vulnerability, critical consciousness.

3. What would you most like to see young writers learn from the writers of the past that you feel is lacking today?

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(Image: by Valide Hidinua & Mathews Abraham – performance of The Ghetto is not our home at the Old Location Cemetery and Penduka, Goreangab Dam)

I think both can learn from each other and other writers beyond our borders. Especially when it comes to creating innovating work. I have seen a lot of work that leans towards western productions instead of texts that are influenced by our indigenous backgrounds in terms of content, form and concept. I think writers need more support spaces. Both College of the Arts and University of Namibia arts courses do not offer writing at the moment and this is worrying. Writing education is not diverse enough. Namibian texts are poorly archived and not published especially in the last decade.

4. What’s the first hook that gets a new play started for you? Is it an image, a theme, a character?

The concept. I love conceptual thinking because it creates open spaces for ideas to flow freely beyond the text. Plays that challenge traditional forms. Plays that are deeply embedded in their indigenous cultures. Plays that are process-based instead of a product or finished texts that can be thrown in the dust bin during the rehearsal process because they were only there to start the process. Texts that allow both actors and audience to re-write.

4. Who are some current creators you follow and think should get more attention?
More makers than playwrights. Performance Artists such as Veronique Mensah, Tuli Mekondjo, JuliArt, Dorothee Munyaneza (Rwanda) & Ogutu Muraya (Kenya).

5. What do you think are the main obstacles they face to getting wider recognition?
Accessing wider audiences and international markets because we are isolated from the rest of the world as an industry. Again, I wanna highlight our education system and how it is failing our children. There aren’t enough publishers and residencies for writers. My dream is to actually start an informal learning and culture space for writers and performers to cover industry gaps that are not considered by existing institutions.

7. If you could change just one thing about the Namibian theatre industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be?
I’d pay artists more and we would have an on-going theatre. Theatre makers would be making work non-stop and there would be more exploration of unconventional spaces like site-specific theatre and public art. In my ideal world, theatre and performance education is decolonized.

8. What writing themes intrigue you?

I feel like we lost resistance culture as a nation. Or rather, it is displaced. In my processes, I touch on healing and transformation. Anything that fights Heteropatriarchy, racism, ableism, Afrophobia, capitalism, is my cup of tea.

9. People say theatre in Namibia is expensive. What is your take on this?

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I think when people say theatre is expensive, they just mean that it is not accessible. I have this idea I’m currently developing that argues that theatres and museums are not built for living bodies, they are built for dead bodies. Artists are poorly paid because the theatre needs to cover their expenses, so artists are just used as objects. Institutions are violent. Indigenous African theatre was not always in some building isolated from the world, it was vulnerable to split-focus and disruption. I am a proponent on the education of both artists and the public about the importance and relevance of theatre.