Women, Mahangu and Memories: a conversation with Tuli Mekondjo

POSTED ON: January 18, 2021 IN Elize van Huyssteen, On Artists, Word View

– by Elize van Huyssteen

Tuli-Mekondjo, whose name means `we are in the struggle’, was born in Angola in 1982 to Namibian parents who joined SWAPO (South-West Africa Peoples’ Organisation) in exile in the early 1980s. Mekondjo lives and works in Windhoek, Namibia.

EVH: When did you start to think of what you were creating as art?   

TM: I recall coming with my mother as a very young child to Namibia from the Nyango Refugee Camp in Zambia to visit my grandmother for the first time. When I saw this old person standing in the mahangu fields I just instinctively start running towards her and grabbed her hands.[1] When I touched her hands and saw the deep lines engraved in them, at that moment that image was embedded in my psyche and I connected with her on a deep level that would make me see her life being streamed to me psychically. Images of the uncles and relatives whom I had never met appeared and I realised that I have that capacity to imagine things and bring them into existence. 

EVH: Who or what influenced you?

TM: My grandmother and the difficulties I experienced when my mother passed away when I was 12 years old. A mother is a pillar in your life and she understands you more than anybody else, so when you lose your mother, you suffer a great loss. My personal experiences of dealing with family members who passed on without ever having met them; they are my relatives but I don’t know how to connect to them. I only met one of my uncles three years ago, shortly before he passed on and I could take care of him while he was in hospital. I thought since he is my uncle, my mother’s brother, I should support him, he is connected to my mother, whom I lost.  

EVH: When your mother passed on, who raised you?

TM: I was put into a boarding school in Swakopmund by relatives, and over weekends I had to work in a coffee shop to have some money to survive. 

EVH: How long have you been an artist?

TM: I started while in boarding school. It helped me to process my mother’s death, the struggle to survive and finding my own identity. I never had formal art training, even though I once reached out to a white artist to teach me. She just closed the door in my face, and since then I decided to just push on by myself. The work for The Bellowing Mind exhibition was already conceived and in progress during that time in Swakopmund. After school I found another job in a curio shop in Swakopmund and would work on my art during quiet times.   

EVH: The Bellowing Mind (2016) was your first solo exhibition. In that body of work you explored psychological themes such as anxiety, depression and trauma. You also used recurring motifs of tree roots and branches that resembles nerves. What do these motifs represent?

TM: The Bellowing Mind was very much a self-reflection exhibition, where I dealt not only with personal trauma but also the trauma in my family. The work dealt mostly with the anguish of loss, the residues of death and how these traumas are embedded within our bodies. The roots/veins in the work represented the storage of these traumas within one’s body. Bipolar II documents what it felt like when I felt like being in two polarities, almost like a surreal kind of reality. I had to grow up real fast. When my mother passed on, it was a tough time because I was mostly left to my own devices to look after myself. I had an identity crisis and my mind was always burdened with thoughts of abandonment. There was a constant sense of not belonging, and I wasn’t able to connect with my extended family, to talk about my feelings of sadness and loss. I was a young person, who was about to have a nervous breakdown and I felt alone in the world, without parental support nor an immediate support system. With this exhibition, I dealt with the loss of my mother, abandonment, the absent father, my own sense of self-defeat, the constant rebirth of trauma and feeling caged, just to name a few.

Bipolar II, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist and Guns and Rain.

EVH: You have been making art for over twenty years, yet it is only in recent years that your work has gained international recognition. How did that happen and where has your work been exhibited?

TM: I was invited by Jo Rogge and Julia Hango (JuliArt Cult) to be part of their artist collective, So Namibia Collective, back in 2016. Rogge and Hango made it possible for my work to be exhibited for the first time on an international platform at the Art Market Budapest Fair in 2016. The Collective changed to NJE Collective in 2017 and they have been very instrumental in mentoring me as an artist and creating various platforms for my work to be exhibited at the Cape Town Art Fair and Johannesburg Art Fair. I met Julie Taylor, from Guns & Rain Gallery, at the Cape Town Art Fair and she took me under her wing and the work has been showcased at the 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair in London and at AKAA (Also Known As Africa) in France to name a few places.

EVH: What time elapsed between the first and second exhibition and how do you feel have you matured as an artist in that time? How are your current style and themes different to what you were portraying /depicting earlier? 

TM: Between the first and second solo exhibition, it took me a while before I could start working again. I needed to figure out the next step. I took a long time to start working again, as I needed a new body of work to be born. I had my first solo exhibition in 2016 and my second solo exhibition in 2019. The three-year break was critical and an important learning period to re-discover myself and to honestly self-criticize everything that I was.   

The mahangu style came to me through a kind of spiritual experimental moment; it developed spontaneously and everything else simply fell into place. I am still learning and will always be learning, perhaps I am ‘afraid’ of maturity with regards to being a creative, but I would like to believe that every time that I am working on a new art piece, that I am learning something new and discovering new techniques/ ways of creating. The only difference now is that I employ mahangu, image transfer, and sometimes burning of the canvases, but the essence remains the same, together with the birds and stitching of the canvases, the fine lines are also reappearing now in gold. I suppose there is more vegetation and metallic hues in the current pieces. I also see correlations with the plant imagery and the stitching in both body of works. The plants are ‘alive’ now — perhaps a reflection of my own state of being at this moment in time.

EVH: Which materials/ textures/ colours/ themes attract you?

TM: I started with the marker pens and continue experimenting with different mediums such as resin and mahangu, testing what works and what not. This is how the technique with the mahangu and resin came about. This was wonderful for me, coming from a culture where we plant mahangu and having the memory of my grandmother in the mahangu fields, to have discovered a technique bringing these thought processes together. The core of my work is about women labouring for their children and survival, creating community and forming in the end the backbone of a society. My themes address the lives of women and how mahangu connects them with working on the land and survival.  

EVH: Is this perhaps also part of your catharsis to deal with the lack of nourishment and support systems you had growing up as a child without your mother and family systems? 

TM: Not only that but I also believe that it is relatable to the majority of people in Namibia and Africa and for those growing up in the West, or elsewhere in the world, who lacked parental nourishment and support growing up.  In the developing countries, that lack of nourishment and support becomes one’s existence and reality on a daily basis. In Africa, it is apparent that women are the backbones of society, they work extremely hard to keep their communities alive. As personal as it might be, the truth is that this ‘lack of’ is a collective burden, which the whole continent is shouldering. 

EVH: Can you elaborate on this cultural practice of women working the land and its significance for you in your work?

TM: It is significant to me, from that moment when I saw it within the deep lines on my grandmother’s hands. For centuries, the women in the northern part of Namibia toiled the soil and planted the mahangu seed and they would ask the ancestors for a good harvest. What a wonderful way to pay homage to these hard-working women, by incorporating mahangu in my work as a symbol of their strengths, how they nourished us with this mahangu and how they taught us, the meaning of work through the whole process of working the land, sowing the seed, tending to the mahangu sprouts, harvesting, pounding the mahangu into a fine meal at the end of the whole process. Every Ovambo person, who grew up in the northern part of Namibia, knows the importance of this mahangu field education and the value of it.

EVH: Does colour play a significant role in your art? Previously your work was characterised by many white lines.

TM: In the very beginning it was more about the lines, which was my connection to the lines on my grandmother’s hands and the repetitions to create patterns. Now all of a sudden with the mahangu I am creating my own universe with the golden colours of the mahangu. The transferring of the archival images/photos brought an otherworldly element to my work. I create a different type of atmosphere, darker and golden tones, coming from the archival images that I am now using. I also draw on a myth in Aawambo culture saying that the Aawambo people emerged from a great lake and that there was a huge moon shining on them. They would start worshipping the moon and teach their children about the cycles of the moon and its importance in their culture. These kinds of stories influence my work.

EVH: This is fascinating. Tell me more about these stories that you create/ draw from? Are they imaginations from your mind, or originating from Aawambo folktales?

TM: It really depends, these stories are mostly a combination of my own imagination and Aawambo folktales. Sometimes I would borrow from the folktales and create a story, set in this mahangu otherworldly place or at the lake. 

EVH: At the opening of Limbadungila, your exhibition at the end of 2019, there was a performance by you and a traditional healer. Can you explain that performance and its significance to your two-dimensional works?

TM: That was a very intense performance, as soon as Kuku and I stepped out and started interacting with the audience, the atmosphere changed. [2] Kuku went into a trance and I was transported to another place. When we stepped into the centre of the ‘enclosure’, and we sat down facing each other, that represented ancestors in dialogue. The performances and the two-dimensional works are intertwined, because in both cases, I am seeking the presence of my ancestors, they influence my work — I am simply a channel, channelling them on various levels. The performances allow me to embody them in the physical form, thus I am covered in ash to look like them. 

Performance with Kuku (at opening of Limbadungila), 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and The Project Room.

EVH: This exhibition featured the female form and was more colourful; it celebrated women. It reminded me of the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelites and Gustav Klimt. Have you been inspired or influenced by these artists?

TM: Gustav Klimt’s golden hues are very much inspirational and timeless. 

EVH: Which artists are inspirational to you?

TM: Frida Kahlo and Gustav Klimt, I believe my connection to Kahlo and Klimt is rooted in being born in July and in the individual hardships. I immediately connect with their work. I look at their work and there is this familiarity that I have known it before.  John Muafangejo, the Namibian printmaker, who was actually born in Angola — he was documenting what was happening in the northern part of Namibia at the time of the Border War. [3] He also used Oshiwambo in his titles, preserving the language and culture. There was a sense of pride he expressed for his own language. I find that truly inspirational and realised the importance of preservation of our mother tongues.

Be independent (from Limbadungila), 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and The Project Room.

EVH: What do you think of contemporary art in Namibia? Do we have artists who are practising contemporary art in Namibia, what is your view?

TM: Yes, there are some artists who are working in a contemporary fashion. Like Barbara Boehlke who is now using ochre pigments from the land, and it is dry, powdery and unusual from the conventional oil paints normally used. I also find the work of Elisia Nghidishange quite special as I see her working in the studio next to me, how she is welding and working physically hard like women in the mahangu fields, to bring about social change through her sculptures by dealing with women’s issues in our society.

EVH: What about Julia Hango, the Queer nude performance artist and artivist? Do you view her work as contemporary Namibian art?

TM: I love Julia’s work; I will always support her 100%. I marvel to see how she naturally gives a middle-finger to our society, because of our failure to see the nude body as an art form. The last show that we both participated in was Odalate Naiteke in the beginning of 2020. I remember seeing the power of her performance on the street corner and how the cars were slowing down to see what was happening. She is shaking up the barriers of censorship and taboos around nudity.

EVH: Art schools in the West have been teaching the anatomy of the body through nude drawings, and classical sculpture prides itself in the aesthetics of the human form. How do you see the (naked) body in our society and as a means of artistic expression? Have you employed your body as art?

TM: Figure drawing is everything to me and I truly wish we can normalise it at the art college and university art department in Windhoek. What is the point of learning how to draw anatomy when the model is fully clothed? Our society is unfortunately missing the point about the importance of the naked body as a form of artistic expression. If there are difficulties in connecting with the self, in the naked flesh, and you fail to see the beauty of who you are as an individual, with all your preconceived flaws, it would be challenging to make that artistic connection to the naked body. It is quite sad realising that in pre-colonial Namibia/ Africa, African bodies were adorned and patterned with beads and body painting and that it was seen as pure natural art on naked bodies. It was never an issue to be openly in the nude. Christian indoctrination infiltrated the minds and societies, and clothed people in cotton cloth, and their artistic expressions via the naked body were labelled shameful and a sin. I am thus in awe of the radical body artists who are shattering the notion of ‘shame’ around artistic expressions in the nude and they urge us to retrace our steps and to truly look at ourselves, at our nakedness and how beautiful and natural it is. In my performances I employ my body as art, I could be clothed in raffia, yet there’s a sense of curiosity whenever I am covered in ash. This is because ash reminds us of our natural selves, a ‘veil’ of protection from evil spirits and a deeper connection to our ancestors.

Performance in Odalate Naiteke, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Guns & Rain

EVH: Would you say that nudity in the art performances could also stand for being vulnerable and authentic in oneself? Could you speak more about that?

TM: Yes, I agree and this is the core of it: being vulnerable and true to oneself. When in the state of vulnerability, you are not only showcasing a bare body, but are stripping yourself to the very core of your soul/ being without fear but with a deep-rooted understanding of your origin from nature and that one day you will return to the soil and root of this nature. We are part of nature, but we have lost connection. Nature is essentially authentic, it is us who must reconnect with that truthfulness, the same place that we came from. Nature has always been authentic, why are we scared or ashamed of that authenticity within ourselves?

EVH: In Europe, modern art developed as a means of dealing with the atrocities and traumas of the two world wars. Do you think we in Namibia have found a form of art therapy to deal with the traumas of colonisation and the Border War? 

TM: I think in one way or the other, different young artists are dealing with the issues of the genocide, [through] the removal of statues. We are trying to revisit the generational traumas around Cassinga. [4] We need more dialogues to discuss the pain, but unfortunately our communities are silent. They are fearful to speak about what happened at Cassinga. Some artists are creating platforms to create safe spaces for healing. There is still that fear to look at the pain and the trauma. The genocide needs dialogue to come together as a nation. We need a true reconciliation.  

EVH: Why is that the members of the communities in which these atrocities happened are fearful and reluctant to speak about the pain and suffering? Are there certain cultural taboos that prevent this type of openness/ conversation?

TM: I don’t see it as a cultural taboo to not speak, it actually refers to the ‘vow of silence’ that the soldiers took. Today’s veterans are aware of many traumatic events which happened at the various camps, they just fear for their lives, if they were to openly speak about the torture dungeons, that there could be politically motivated repercussions. 

EVH: You mentioned that artists are creating platforms for discussion and acknowledgement of the psychological scars left by colonisation and the war for independence. What other steps do you think there are in the process of reconciliation and healing of the nation?

TM: As a nation, we need to actively come together and engage in dialogues on these various platforms about our collective traumas; and if it would be possible for some to also talk about our personal traumas.  It is impossible for me to believe that there is a Namibian household out there that has not effected, or been affected by, traumas of wars and displacement. As a collective we will have the strength to hopefully create that much needed National Reconciliation Platform. Today, there are still families searching for answers/ closure about their loved ones that crossed into Angola to fight a war. What is the cost of silence and denial? How long must this Nation wait to heal these historical traumatic wounds? 

EVH: In your latest exhibition Borders of Memory, you are collaborating with Helena Uambembe, and that was organised by Guns & Rain gallery in Johannesburg. For that body of work, you draw on archival material of the Border War, but also from personal experience of that period. How did the war personally aeffect your life and inform your art practice?

TM: Well, Borders of Memory is very much my personal story. Both my parents crossed the border into Angola to fight in this war. They left Namibia as young people, with the determination of youth to fight a war, and for the independence of Namibia. They sacrificed not only their youth but also their lives for us to live in an independent Namibia today. I am a ‘war-love-child’ of my parents, I was born in one of the refugee camps in Angola and spent my formative years in another refugee camp in Zambia. My childhood was quite intense and traumatic, there was displacement and I suffered an identity crisis, even after meeting my extended family members when we came to Namibia in 1990, when I was eight. I recall the post-traumatic war disorders of my parents and their passing when I was still young. I am still dealing with war trauma and with my art practice, there will always be chapters from this war, chapters of not only my personal story but of other brave souls, who want to express their journeys from this war.

Cassinga (from Borders of Memory), 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Guns & Rain

EVH: In Borders of Memory, you incorporated photos from the National Archives of Namibia into the work. This is radical and deliberately brings in Namibia’s history and suffering. The colour choice is more sombre, there are burnt patches in the canvas and there is a stitched red line running directly parallel through all the works linking them together as a body of work. Can you elaborate on the meanings these have?

TM: The colours are sombre because memory, over time, becomes vague within the capsules of time. The burning of the canvases not only represent the four major refugee camps, but definitely the bombing of Cassinga on 4th May 1978, in which the victims were mostly women and children. Through fire, I reimagined the victims as witnesses of the chaos that erupted at Cassinga, of bullets flying in the air, the rupture of scorched flesh and the smell of death, a stale stillness in the air. I use resin symbolically to ‘bury’ the bodies and to create an understanding of the permanency of a burial. The mahangu acts as a connector between them and their ancestors. My personal perspective is that, whenever I look at their archival faces, I begin to imagine their lives, like what occupied their minds? How did they confront death and the fear of passing away and being buried in foreign soil?

The red line is a reference to the internal border still within Namibia. It is beyond belief that, still today, the majority of Namibians living behind the imaginary Red Line in northern Namibia are separated from the rest of the country. This internal border was used to control the movement of livestock and was also instrumental as a regulator of contract labourers in colonial and apartheid Namibia. This Red Line, just like other historical borders, is still ingrained within the minds of the people and to have it still as a tangible reminder, after it was erected in 1896 by the imperial German administration, speaks volumes to how we as a nation still romanticize the mind and policies of the colonial and apartheid oppressors. It brings to light our inability to find economic solutions that can benefit both the northern farmers and the southern elite cattle farmers. Personally, I see the historical role of the Red Line as a segregation tool, which was used in colonial/ apartheid Namibia. This line divided the country both physically and symbolically and it served as a political ‘cage’ that was used to monitor the movements of the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army of Namibia) Fighters, the so-called Guerrilla Movement, and the planning of raids into Angola and Zambia, with the targets being the refugee camps. 

EVH:  When you refer to the “southern elite farmers”, do you also include the marginalised Nama farming communities?

TM: No, I am only referring to the privileged white farmers in the South, because the system was specifically set to benefit them and their interests. During the colonial and apartheid era, there was no consideration for the betterment of the marginalised Nama farming communities. They were in fact not considered as legitimate farmers, but as labourers on the farms of the southern elite. 

 EVH: You work in layers, building upwards from the canvas, yet it resembles a palimpsest. Are these layers referencing the memories? Tell us more of this process.

TM: Yes, that is exactly what it is. I am trying to revisit pre-colonial Ovambo culture and whenever I look at these pre-colonial portraits of Aawambo women, in their finery with those beautiful coiffures, I imagine my ancestors from that time and wonder what were these women’s thoughts, fears, pains, loses and frustrations? What did they love the most — basically what shaped their memories? And do traces of their ancestral memories linger deep within me today?

EVH: What does stitching represent or convey in your art? Sewing and textiles are deeply interwoven in African culture. What is your history with sewing?

TM: My history with sewing is rooted within the basketry weaving of my grandmother. She used to weave baskets with a home-made needle, made from a flattened metal piece. My grandmother would show me how to fold the Makalani palm leaves to create the base of the basket, that is mostly done by the women and in the end you would weave either oshimbale to carry or store mahangu or elilo to serve mahangu porridge. [5] This education in basket-weaving set up my passion for sewing in general and to work with materials such as leather. The stitching in the artworks represents the mending of the lost connection to my ancestors and as a reference to the ‘backbone’ of the women in our society, of the many labours they have to keep working in order to feed their children and households.

EVH: Which stories of women interest you most?

TM:  All aspects of womanhood, every layer and every fibre of being a woman interests me. From the intricacy of our moods, pains, sorrows, losses through our abilities of compassion and love during the hardest of circumstances, to the stories of resilient women which speak of their traumas and hate.

EVH: How can we as women heal our world and offer alternative modes of dealing with difficulties and conflict situations?

TM: We need to be gentler with one another, hold each other higher, and support one another in times of conflicts and difficult moments. It is about time that young women are encouraged to be self-reliant and abolish the notion that there is a ‘prince charming’ out there that is supposed to rescue them. Even with partners, it is important to not lose ourselves in the relationship, but to continue keeping our dreams alive, because in the end, we only have ourselves. To be secure in oneself as a woman should be the goal.  

Elize van Huyssteen is Associate Curator at the National Gallery of Namibia. The initial interview took place at the National Gallery, and was subsequently pursued through a series of email exchanges. 


[1] Mahangu is a millet-type grain and staple food in Namibia.

[2] Kuku is Oshivambo (Oshindonga) to refer either to an old person (as in grandmother or grandfather) or to an uncle or an aunt (e.g. Kuku Samuel or Kuku Maria).  However, in Oshikwanyama, the names for grandmother and grandfather are MeeKulu and Tatekulu, whereas uncles and aunts are referred to, e.g. as Tatekulu Phillip or Meekulu Ina.

[3] The Border War (1966 – 1990) was originally the South African name for armed conflict that was mostly fought in southern Angola. At the time, South Africa was occupying Namibia (then South West Africa).  The term is still used, along with subsequent nomenclature such as the Namibian War of Independence and the Namibian Liberation Struggle.

[4]  Cassinga is a town in Angola where SWAPO set up a reception base camp (refugee camp) during the Liberation Struggle for Independence of Namibia.  The Camp at Cassinga was attacked by the South African Air Force on 4 May 1978 and approximately 600 people were killed.  Most of the victims were civilians, mainly women and children.  Cassinga Day is commemorated annually in Namibia, in remembrance of those buried in mass graves at Cassinga.

[5] Oshimbale is the name given to cone-shaped baskets, elilo refers to plate-shaped baskets.