Artwolfe is an independent printed and online magazine covering the art scene in Namibia. Houghton Kinsman met up with the founding editors.
Sitting in my studio on a cold winter’s evening in Cape Town, chatting to Nicola van Straaten and Kathryn Muller about Artwolfe zine and its burgeoning reputation, it struck me just how far they have already come. In just over a year, without much support and armed with not much else than their own intuition, passion and desire, the founding editors, Nicola, Kathryn and Helen Harris have set about to create and develop a platform for a Namibian art scene that they feel is very much alive and kicking. They all lived together while studying at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town and decided to form a multidisciplinary collective that would fuse their combined interests in performance, fine art and literature. This fusion culminated in a ruggedly beautiful, handcrafted zine, aptly titled Artwolfe. As students they faced the usual conundrum of how to craft a voice without access to any significant finances, and it may seem somewhat predictable that they would turn to the zine format – but so far it has it been a worthwhile choice. After graduation they returned to Namibia and Artwolfe rapidly began to take shape. It wasn’t long before locals caught on. Focusing on both art and performance, Artwolfe has helped address a lack of critical writing and dialogue on the local Namibian art scene. And recently, in addition to regular sales at the National Gallery in Windhoek, they have attracted attention from Art Dubai’s Marker fair and have been reviewed by South Africa’s creative platform Between 10 and 5. But what is perhaps most significant about Artwolfe is the way in which its own inception, development and continuous production, mimics what is happening in Namibia itself. The pioneering spirit of Kathryn, Helen and Nicola, speaks to their comment that in Namibia, “artists get down and work with what they have – and they make things happen.” This refusal to sit around and wait for someone to provide the necessary funding or platform, but to go out and make it happen yourself, gives the project an organic, raw beauty that speaks to its punk ancestry, without compromising its intellect. Yet, most importantly, the story of Artwolfe zine serves as an example to others of how – armed with a DIY attitude, a bit of passion and prepared to take a few risks along the way – we are able to create our own opportunities. I caught up with Artwolfe, to find out more about what is happening in Namibia and what the future holds for them.
Houghton Kinsman: Why did you decide to start Artwolfe zine?
Nicola van Straaten/Helen Harris: In Namibia there really is a lot of stuff going on and people are doing exciting artistic things all the time, but other than a handful of newspaper reviews, there isn’t a strong culture of documenting what goes on and there is also very little information to be found anywhere about the individuals and groups contributing to the art scene. Our aim from the beginning was for Artwolfe to become a platform for Namibian artists and art fans to voice their thoughts and connect with one another on issues they felt passionate about. As Artwolfe becomes better known and incrementally more established, we are happy to see that more and more people have become interested in contributing material. In recent issues most of our content has been submitted by Namibian artists, authors, musicians and comedians. We want to create a space for any Namibian artists to write about Namibian art, where young emerging artists can be interviewed or where aspiring but unpublished authors can be featured proudly.
HK: Noble intentions indeed! So how did it all start?
NS/HH: We all studied and lived together in Cape Town, South Africa. In 2014 in of Windhoek. We wanted to engage in and encourage each other’s artistic development so we decided to start an art collective to launch projects from. Artwolfe zine was our first (and so far only) group collaboration. We had done some zine workshops together in Cape Town and liked the DIY and instantaneous nature of zine-making. When we started, we wrote most of the articles ourselves, printed, cut and bound the zine ourselves and sold them for 5 Namibian dollars each at art events around Windhoek by haggling everyone we came across! We sold out all our stock and realized that people were excited about what we were trying to do. The website was started concurrently.
HK: When one thinks of a zine, the DIY/Analogue process stands out as one of its defining characteristics. Yet, Artwolfe zine has transitioned to the Internet. Why did you decide to make this transition and how has it influenced your readership?
NS/HH: The DIY/Analogue process is one that brings us a lot of joy and pleasure: the nature of Artwolfe as an art object and the way in which we get to be involved in the creation of objects was (and is) definitely a driving force behind this publication. But actually, we printed our first issue and launched the blog at exactly the same time, so the online aspect of Artwolfe has been there since the beginning. We subscribe to the sentiment that if it’s not on the Internet, it doesn’t exist. Most importantly, the online publication enables us to reach many more people than we can currently reach with our zines. We don’t have the tools or finances yet to print more than 100 issues at a time, or to manage distribution beyond Windhoek. Something that we picked up early on is that an online publication can connect people who are far away and hook them into what is going on centrally. During the Bank Windhoek Triennial last year we had a number of people writing in from rural areas, wanting to know about the exhibition that was held in Windhoek. We ended up doing a whole issue discussing the Triennial and sharing images from it. Even the official catalogue was not distributed, so in a way the online version of Artwolfe was the only platform sharing any information about an event that was of interest to people all over the country. Having followers online also somehow makes us more accountable to produce good and regular work. And of course, being online allows us to reach an audience outside Namibia, which is also exciting, not just for us but also for the artists and performers that we write about, or feature.
HK: Now that you have been covering the local scene intensely for an extended period of time, how would you describe what is happening in Namibia?
NS/HH: Having a small population makes art-making tough in a lot of ways. But what you lose out on the swings, you win on the roundabout. The Namibian art scene is excitable and ready for all sorts of fun. What makes it particularly stimulating is that there is so much room for interdisciplinary work. Artists of all genres are open to collaborating and building on each other’s successes. For example, the Theatre School in Windhoek is abuzz with artists from different disciplines who are all active in the community. It is an education facility, a performance space and also a central meeting place. Most importantly, it is a people-centered, people-driven space. It’s not fancy; there isn’t a ton of equipment or resources for people to play with. Artists get down and work with what they have – and they make things happen. The comedy company Free Your Mind started its stand-up shows there more than 6 years ago and is now operating as a fully-fledged business. Spoken Word and Song Night(also stand-alone performance companies) started their life there too. While hubs like this are clearly active in the capital (which is also where Artwolfe is based) it is much harder to keep track of what goes on artistically in other parts of the country. There is a small annual arts festival in Omaruru (a small town about 200km outside of Windhoek). There is a small but busy art community in the coastal town of Swakopmund. A number of NGOs operate in the arts and crafts arena all over the country and every now and then we get snippets from far flung rural areas about individuals making waves. It’s definitely a goal of ours to become more connected with what goes on artistically outside of Windhoek – and also to expand our readership in that direction.
HK: Taking this artistic activity into account, why do you think there is very little being done to promote what is happening in Namibia?
NS/HH: This is a tough question because there are many people fighting hard to promote the arts in Namibia. Some of these people have done so for decades but there are also strong, new voices pitching in all the time. It’s definitely an uphill struggle. Money is a huge factor. It’s hard to convince people that investing in art is worthwhile when there is so little structural support for it. On the one hand the government is an active player, and there are also a number of corporates that fund the arts extensively through their corporate social responsibility budgets – but playing into the hands of these giants can also be debilitating and compromise artists’ integrity and freedom. It’s a fine line to walk, between getting exposure and being true to one’s self. As a young country it seems as though we are still seeking stability, still trying to minimise risk and cover our backs, and this is reflected in how art is made and how it is seen.
HK: In an interview in 2001 between Hans Ulrich Obrist and Édouard Glissant, they talked about how the “dialogue between art and literature has vanished.” Almost 15 years on and you have introduced poetry and fiction into a predominately art-based zine. What made you decide to make this introduction and how does it contribute to the dialogue between art and literature?
NS/HH: We decided to include poetry and fiction into Artwolfe largely because we want to enable a platform that is as inclusive as possible. Spoken word and poetry are art forms that are really flourishing in Namibia at the moment and it is really exciting to have people on board this project whose medium of artistic expression is words. After all, in many ways Artwolfe is a literary project. We like the idea that it could be a publication that not only discusses art, but also in a way enables art. This fusion could definitely pave the way to creating dialogue across different art forms and we are curious about how it will go down.
HK: How do you envision the growth and development of WordWolfe?
NS/HH: Eventually we would like to have a separate quarterly anthology for Wordwolfe dedicating itself solely to Namibian poetry and fiction. We also want to move towards multi-lingual content so that Namibians can write and read in whatever language they choose.
HK: And of Artwolfe?
NS/HH: One thing we do know, is that we are completely committed to Artwolfe being around for a very long time. Some hopes and goals include finalising funding to enable us to do more and come up with a more user-friendly website. We really want to be able to pay our writers and editorial team. We are in the process of organizing writers’ workshops that will become a regular fixture. We’d love to run an artist/writer’s residency program one day and collaborate with other Namibian organizations.
Artwolfe zine is published every two months in a four issue printed volume and the articles can also be accessed online at artwolfezine.com.
Houghton Kinsman is a creative/educator based in Cape Town and Miami and has worked as the Assistant to the Curator of Education at the Museum of Contemporary Art Miami. He contributes regularly to Highsnobiety and Art South Africa magazines.