I have made some of the most lasting friendships during 1988-1993 while living in Namibia of my whole life. We went to the bush and the desert regularly and sharing the extraordinary landscape connects the experiences deeper than the existence of just the event.
One such a friend was Wiebke Volkmann. I first met her when she was willing to collect me for a meeting at the founding of the Rape Crisis unit in Namibia. We landed at a house with some women, clearly all interested in the project. But I was struck by their degree of solemnness. Later I discovered that they were strong feminists and some were lesbian at a time when the status of homosexuality was still an uncertain public persona.
Many years later when Wiebke and I reviewed our rich friendship together we revisited this initial meeting and I was glad to learn that I was not the only one experiencing the meeting as rather hostile in atmosphere.
Nevertheless I gradually came to know many of these women who did good work from being in the caring professions to art-makers, activities stretching over a large spectrum of activities in the new Namibia.
Wiebke was an inexhaustible woman. She was teaching Fine Arts at the university and once, in her battle to communicate a certain point to the three male heads of department she did a very daring thing. She invited them all to the local theatre, one for small productions and not many seats. She wore no bra, brought a bucket of water along and began to speak to them in a way that she wished to be heard while she poured water all over herself. (It was the time of Scope magazine and women photographed in wet T-shirts). She was successful.
But Wiebke also got me involved in other projects such as paper-making, (which she did in her backyard amongst the fruit trees of an orchard), hiking trails, farm work, building low-cost houses with local clay and so forth.
The performance that we did together was called Touchstone. Her father being a land surveyor, she decided to bring an artistic rendition of a plumb which she had made from artificial stone to the rehearsal once and the object stayed. I never questioned Wiebke’s choices. She came from a place of certainty and an informed experience.
It was the time when the population of Windhoek was pruning trees. Long ‘latte’ were lying on the pavements for the council to remove. Then she drove her little car all over the town collecting these lengthy branches, driving them to the rehearsal sticking out on the left side of her car. She was unstoppable. Her inspiration surmounted anybody’s true understanding of what she was busy with. But I trusted her impulses implicitly.
Touchstone was collaboration between a fine artist and installation artist and a dancer that had no bounds. The performance was improvised, the art of listening at what wanted to move, be said, voiced, manipulated and arranged ritualistically.
Our work together took place in the rehearsal room of the Windhoek Theatre. Then we took the whole project, the plumb, bags of camel thorn pods, rubber ribbons cut from old innertubes and the masses of ‘latte’ to other spaces to see the effect thereof. The connecting factor were Wiebke’s wondrous joy in exploring her body’s sensation while handling the long round sticks – realizing the inner tension of the woodfibre when bending the sticks, testing the point where it would snap, observing the sliding loss when the smooth surfaces of a loosely arranged bundle gave way….
One such venue was in the centre square of Katutura, one of two townships, the Otjiherero name meaning ‘the place where people do not want to live.’ We unloaded the latte and began to manipulate them in the space, performing ritualistically. It was the time when most people returned home from work and there was large traffic across the square. Suspicion was the main feeling in the atmosphere around us. We were in a place where White people very rarely showed a face. What of acting out on long sticks, arranging and re-arranging, as if there was hidden meaning behind it all? Some men began to protest, asking questions and soon a disgruntled collective began to build up. On the opposite side a group of women started to contradict the men. They are just playing!, the women shouted across our performance to the men. But we sensed a conflict coming. When both Wiebke and I felt that the time of our performance had run its full course, we simply took our latte, loaded it into the little car and drove off.
We then took the work to a farm. For some reason we wanted to have a goat in the performance and the Windhoek Theatre could not allow this on the stage. We approached a farmer on the outskirts of Windhoek and with a film crew (the same crew that I used on the Desert Dune project) and a male goat in its kraal.
We offloaded our bags of camel thorn pods, the latte, the plumb and lengthy cut rubber with which we could tie the latte if we so wished. Then we entered the space with the goat and began our performance ritual. That is what you would be seeing on the video of this project.
Another performance took place in the National Theatre with an invited audience all sitting on the stage in a single file circle. The dramatic lighting on and in that space created yet more opportunities for expression. The presence of specific invited people inspired specific gestures and forms. It was an exploration of courage moving between known and un-known, between name-able and not nameable experiences.
All of my work in collaboration with other performers had many lessons to them. The artistic impulse and its emanations were always extremely rich in its reciprocity and friendships. Wiebke Volkmann was such a person. Many years later I revisited Namibia to launch my book about that period. She offered to be my interviewer. Yet again thorough to the bone and with impeccable commitment to the end product: cultural enrichment and connection with the place we are, Wiebke remains my friend, even at a far distance, with beautiful memories of a lusciously creative 5 years in Namibia.