LONGSTORYSHORT – expanding historically conflated testimonies

Monday, 19.06.2017 (ends 25.08.2017)
Whole day
National Art Gallery of Namibia (NAGN)
Crn. Robert Mugabe Avenue and John Meinert Str.

LONGSTORYSHORT – expanding historically conflated testimonies
Long Story Short is an English idiom used for explaining the condensing of a story to only tell the ‘main aspect’ without giving all the details. This happens regularly in social situations and conversations. But what happens when some information is left out? How is it decided what is minor and what is major when it comes to detail and content?

Story telling is a large part of an individual’s daily life, and indeed of communities and societies at large. Stories are shared orally, and some are written down, becoming recorded documents of history. The complexities of circumstances involved in the events being narrated are prone to omission when we “cut a long story short”. Moreover, the perspectives and interpretations of those narrating are often also rooted in the societal norms in which the story-telling occurs and may not be sufficiently challenged, or made visible in the very least.

The history of the Namibian nation contains thousands of testimonies of war. The oppressive forces of European occupation, German colonial rule and South African rule brought with them violent abuses of human rights and the dignity of Namibians. These invaders justified their presence through their own story-telling to international parties. A tangible example of this is the narrative around Cassinga, widely believed to be a Namibian refugee camp in southern Angola during South African occupation of Namibia. As elaborated on by Christian Williams (2010: 230), “South Africa's attack on the morning of May 4, 1978 at Cassinga resulted not only in mass carnage and destruction at one time and place, but also in competing histories that have continued to reproduce themselves and impact on people's lives over the more than thirty years since that day.” Immediately after this attack on Cassinga, the South African Defence Force (SADF) presented Cassinga to the international media as a military camp to legitimise the attack. Certain photographs were used, and others left out, to enhance this narrative. Hayes et al (1998: 3) describes, “[a]t every stage of South Africa’s bid to gain the League of Nations mandate to rule Namibia and to control Namibians, photography was crucial to the politics of representing the place and its peoples.” On 6 May 1978, the Namibian liberation party, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), “circulated its first press release which referred to 'the unprovoked attack on the civilian population in Angola' and 'the cold blooded murder of Namibian women and children'” (Williams 2010: 233). Again, certain images were used alongside to verify this narrative.

In both instances, it can be argued that the complex nature of the history of Cassinga, and indeed of the other camps like it during this time, is conflated. With this conflation, the multifaceted and intricate experiences of the people involved in and affected by this event may be undermined by dominant paraphrasing. The question of what is left out when paraphrasing occurs? What part of the long story is cut short, might be useful to keep in mind when listening or reading testimonies, or indeed viewing images as testimony?

In a society as diverse in culture and norms as the Namibian one, there are many different kinds of stories. Cutting a long story short can inadvertently invoke unchecked cultural norms. When there is an assortment of cultural norms in a society, interpersonal relationships are often inadvertently built through cultural comfort; i.e. the expectation that the person you are relating your story to has had similar experiences and therefore can fill in the gaps for themselves. What happens when relating happens across cultural comfort, in a true embrace of diversity? Perhaps when questions are asked and details are given there is possibility for more understanding of histories, and of each other.

LONGSTORYSHORT includes the inaugural display of the Stalemate Bell as part of the Insight installation conceived by Italian NGO IoDeposito. This artwork has been donated to the National Art Gallery of Namibia as one of seven sensory audio installations around the world, all of which are made specifically relating to the historical circumstances of their final destination. The Stalemate Bell looks at how the inclusion of narratives of previously colonised peoples, including Namibians, forced to fight in World War I, can form a more intimate and multi-faceted reflection on experiences of this war, and indeed on the general conditions of war.

Along with the sensory installation of the Stalemate Bell, this exhibition draws together works from the NAGN collection that speak to just how complex the narrative in a visual plane can be, never mind the complexities that ensue when placing images in proximity or juxtaposition to other images. The common phrase ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ is used to explain how images are complex and need to be read as such. Let’s Talk by Sageus ‘Ziggy’ Marthin is arguably the visual embodiment of this concept, portraying the literal action of speaking through a central, open mouth, surrounded by multiple different scenes. One can imagine these scenes as snapshots from different daily lived experiences, all connected through dialogue encouraged by the title of the artwork. In a different way of presenting dialogue and discussion through its absence, Ndasuunje ‘Papa’ Shikongeni’s Silance made out of numerous closed zips makes visible and present the concept of ‘silence’, whose existence is usually dependent on the absence and lack of sound, and more specifically in this case, of discussion. It is through the space of visual arts where it is possible to both encourage dialogue, as well as to make visible the previously hidden or invisible. In this way, visual arts can be a way to re-visit the parts of the stories that have been cut short.

To cut a long story short, don’t.

Williams, Christian A. (2010). 'Remember Cassinga?' an exhibition of photographs and histories. Kronos, 36(1), 213-251.

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