Monday 12 April 2021
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Roots of the first tree: the voices of invisible communities

A rare and unique Art Exhibition opened on 29 August 2019 in the National Gallery of Namibia. This is a landmark exhibition of contemporary art from the San artists of the Ekoka in Ohangwena Region, Drimiopsis and Donkerhoek of Omaheke Region. Using the media of paper, lino on paper, wire, glass beads and wood, the contemporary San artists are telling the story of their lives.
They capture the images of ordinary life: animals, birds, veld foods, domestic animals and nature in general.
They also depict the experiences of their daily life: foraging for food from the bounty of nature, scenes of hunting and newly acquired culture of cultivating food.
Each artist displays his or her unique styles, form and feeling. The images tell the story of their existence and being.
They give life to their presence in the proverbial Namibia House in which their voices are mute.
The Exhibition gives them a voice and an identity which is often absent in their daily existence. The production of these pieces  has no doubt awakened their confidence in themselves and a sense of self- esteem.
The !Xung and the Haai//om of Ohangwena Region as well as the Jul’hoansi , the Naro and the !Xoo of Donkerbos- Sonneblom settlements, worked together to produce the arts work on display in the National Gallery.
According to Metha Goaseb who coordinated the Desert Research Foundation activities in Ekoka,  “… the work we are doing has brought the !Xung and the Hai//om together”.
In other words, the livelihood initiative which resulted in the creation of the arts work had a spin-off effect of creating bridges between different San communities as well as a sense of community and solidarity.
The Exhibition themed:” Roots of the First Tree”, derived its name from the words of Josephine Stuurman of Drimiopsis who stated: “… The Bushmen are the first tree that was planted here.
We are the roots of the first tree”( Karin le Roux, 2019). The exhibition is a brainchild of Karin le Roux through the livelihood project. Karin le Roux is a cultural and social entrepreneur who cultivated a passion of nurturing the skills of rural craft-makers throughout Namibia. She founded the Omba Arts Trust through which she marketed the unique Namibian arts internationally by linking Namibian artists to the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO).
Since 2002, Karin travelled in the remote areas of Namibia connecting herself to impoverished San communities.
She initiated the Livelihood Project in these communities by teaching them to explore their artistic potentials as a means of creating livelihoods.
Her seventeen years involvement in the creative journey with the San communities of Ekoka, Drimiopsis and Donkerhoek,  has resulted in the creation of unique art pieces which motivated her to organize the Exhibition. Writing about her experience in her book:” Roots of the First Tree-An Art Journey with San Living on Resettlement Farms of Namibia”, she noted: “… Building chains of trust sharing, a common vision, sharing responsibilities and finally and most importantly staying the cause”, are the bases of success.
Opening the Exhibition, Speaker of the National Assembly, Professor Peter Katjavivi, noted that the San people were the first settlers of Southern Africa.
Their presence and their voices are important and should be heard and respected. One hopes that this Exhibition of Contemporary Namibian San Art shall draw the attention of policy makers to renew their attention to the plight of these ancient citizens.
Currently San communities live in isolation. They are almost forgotten citizen.
They are trapped in extreme poverty . Their traditional ways of living have been destroyed by the agronomic and pastoral communities as well as by commercial agriculture. Hunting is no more permitted.
The veld- foods are fenced in the national parks and commercial farms. Yet the San people are recognized as the most enduring population in all human history.
Kileni Fernando, coordinator of the Namibia San Council, summed up the current plight of the San people in Namibia when she told Karin le Roux that, “… our struggles of land lost, poverty and other social challenges are the same ( for all the San people) all over the country” . She concluded that the loss of land led to the disconnection from their natural environment, their culture and their identity.
Through the Exhibition of Contemporary Namibian San Art, the artists are asking on behalf of their communities for recognition and the affirmation of their rights as citizens.
Karin le Roux and her collaborators have enabled the San artists to be seen and heard. Is the whole nation listening!

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