OKALONGO-BORN Hage Mukwendje (HM) has mastered the art of expressing himself through painting. He chats to The Namibian's Walter Kariko (WK) about his career.
WK: Tell us more about yourself and your background.
HM: I come from Olwiili Okalongo in northern Namibia. I am a visual artist, having earned my diploma in fine arts in 2011 from the College of the Arts in Windhoek. While my work has been featured in group exhibitions, I have also exhibited as a solo artist in Namibia, England, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, the United States, and Spain. My work is inspired by my interaction with my surroundings. I reflect on and express the intricate details of how people connect with each other and how that informs their perspectives on life.
WK: Have you always wanted to be a visual artist?
HM: Growing up as a child at rural, impoverished Okalongo, I was not exposed to art, art books, artists, museums or galleries, and neither did I know they existed. However, as a child I knew the 'Supa Strika' comic books, and used my imagination to design Valentine's Day cards and make cars out of wire and metal scraps.
My imagination further pushed me to explore other creative outlets, and I discovered my passion for drawing and designing buildings.
The lack of opportunities to further my interests in this art form has led me to painting. Painting gives me a sense of freedom and has become a powerful tool that helps me deal with challenging circumstances.
WK: Is it true that visual arts do not pay in Namibia?
HM: There are many obstacles that limit local artists to thrive. I believe it is important to have an enabling environment that promotes the creative arts and rewards artists for their hard work, focus and dedication. In my opinion, the creative arts play an important role in contributing to the social and economic development of the youth of our country.
WK: One of your paintings was recently sold on auction for N$500 000 at the Namibian International Energy Conference dinner. How will this change your life?
HM: I was invited to exhibit my artwork at the Conference, hosted by RichAfrica Consultancy. As part of the evening's programme, I did a live painting while Suzy Eises performed. The auction was a spontaneous reaction to the finished art piece of a Namibian woman holding a pot to symbolise our abundant resources.
It was indeed an honour to participate in such an event that highlighted the value of collaboration across industries, and I was delighted that the occasion allowed for the biggest sale of my career so far, sweetened by the fact that it happened in my own country.
Through the conference I was able to showcase my craft to an international audience, thereby creating awareness of Namibia's art scene. The value of my work continues to appreciate, and as I have always done with any sale, a part of the proceeds will go towards the charity work I do with children at Katutura.
WK: You recently completed an artwork for the World Health Organisation for which you were lauded by Tedros Ghebreyesus, the WHO director general. What was it like working with an organisation of that magnitude?
HM: It was a great honour and a fulfilling experience to work with an organisation that serves the world's vulnerable population by promoting global health. The painting, titled 'My Future Matters', which depicts a young girl from Katutura, was done live via Zoom, as part of the Lead Innovation Challenge Grand Finale event held in November 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. I am grateful that through my work I could create awareness of the importance of respecting and preserving our environment for future generations.
WK: How would you inspire other visual artists in Namibia?
HM: The best way I can do this is to continue to be authentic and focused on developing my work. I hope my story serves to inspire them to believe that nothing is impossible, and that your circumstances do not define you. It is important to first believe in yourself before others can believe in you.
WK: What new techniques are you keen to introduce to the visual arts space?
HM: How I work is such a beautiful complexity. It's cyclical in nature. My painting is overly influenced by my collage technique, yet, when I'm collaging, I'm trying to achieve what I think I could do with paint. When I'm painting, I mix colours on paper.
When a paper's surface is full of colour, I get a new one and mix on it. It goes on and on like that. I use recycled newspapers and magazines, most of which I pick from street bins as I stroll through the streets of Windhoek.
In the end, the papers, from which I mixed colour, accumulate in my studio with different colour schemes, tones, paint strokes, marks and textures. They act as my palette in the process of creating paper collage artworks. In a way, I suffer from not wasting resources.
The other aspect of my work is that everyone looking at my acrylic paintings gets the feeling that I used a palette knife to create them. On the contrary, I use different materials, including plastic telephone cards I pick up on the street. It's all about recycling and adding relevance to the conceptual message of my work.
I find inspiration in my life experiences utilising numerous issues as subject matters, such as identity, children, joy, hardship, isolation, happiness and fear. My work depicts vulnerability and suggests a longing for protection.
The use of my own eyes in most of my portraits symbolises my wish for these kids to see the world as I do. On the other hand, it also symbolises me, forming part of the subjects I choose to depict. A lot of my works are portraits in which I explore the construction of my own identity.
WK: What are some of the biggest risks you have had to take as a visual artist?
HM: Investing in myself through self-paid international artist residence programmes to develop my career has been a risk worth taking, despite the challenges I have encountered in funding these opportunities.
WK: What advice would you give a young Hage Mukwendje just stepping out of university?
HM: You need sufficient levels of perseverance, discipline, consistency, and the right attitude and hunger to succeed.
I would encourage a young Hage to first believe in their gift, put in the hard work, and most importantly, research, dare to dream big, and be innovative.
Walter is a designer and photographer at The Namibian