Ousie Martha | Tuli Mekondjo | 2-17 November 2023

Guns & Rain is delighted to present Tuli Mekondjo’s travelling solo exhibition Ousie Martha, an installation accompanied by a once-off performance on the opening night. Mekondjo (b. 1982, Angola) is a self-taught Namibian artist whose work explores the construction of identity in the shadow of Namibia’s violent past as both a German and later South African colony. Drawing on 1950s images from Namibia found in the Basler Afrika Bibliographien archive in Switzerland, Ousie Martha was presented earlier this year in both Basel and Berlin. 

In this work, the artist channels the spirits of Namibian women who laboured as domestic workers during the colonial and apartheid eras. Mekondjo symbolically steps into the role of Martha, taking on her laundry, childcare and other domestic chores, so that Martha may for a moment rest. Here, washing becomes an act of acknowledgement and healing, where water is a powerful spiritual force. Drawing on her ongoing research into pre-colonial Aawambo fertility dolls, Mekondjo carries a doll on her back as a way to honour her ancestors and to reflect on both communal and personal loss experienced during her lifetime and the preceding decades: “This doll is an embodiment of every single ancestor, every single relative that I never met.”

The histories of Namibian cultural and ethnographic objects – many of which are now housed in European museums – come under scrutiny in Mekondjo’s performance. Who has access to these archives, she asks? And, importantly, when African calls for restitution come to fruition, “What are we going to do with these items, which are now stained?”, she asks. “How are we going to welcome them? Do we recreate the traumas of putting them back in museum settings?” Mekondjo speaks in Oshiwambo during the performance so that her ancestral spirits will recognise their mother tongue “from the soil, from home”, and know that they are remembered.

In her best known works, Mekondjo uses a variety of media including natural silks, embroidery, photo-transfer, soil, paint, resin and mahangu (millet) grain, a staple food in Namibia, to reframe imagery from historical photographs. These images come from both the German colonial period (1884-1919) and subsequent decades of illegal occupation by South Africa (1965-1990). Mekondjo’s multilayered works result from a process of both literal and figurative burial and retrieval, and draw heavily on photographic representations of indigenous Namibian people from multiple ethnic groups. She integrates these with performative photographs of herself in Victorian dress, and well as embroidered imagery related to fertility, life cycles, birth and death. 

Adjacent to her two-dimensional works, Mekondjo’s performance practice extends the research undertaken in her archival interventions, and locates her personally in the context of the historical oppression of Namibians. The presence of female ancestors is particularly important for Mekondjo, whose connection to her mother, whom she lost when she was 12 years old, and grandmother, are the beginning of a cycle of connections to female ancestors stretching back in time. This directly connects her performances with her two-dimensional works, which often have images of wombs and foetuses embroidered onto them, metaphorically connecting the beginnings of life to the soil and to women. 

About the artist

Tuli Mekondjo (b. 1982) uses a variety of media including performance, installation, fabrics, natural silks, embroidery, photo-transfer, soil, paint, resin and mahangu (millet) grain, a staple food in Namibia, to reframe imagery from historical photographs. These images come from both the German colonial period (1884 – 1919) and subsequent decades of occupation by South Africa (1965 – 1990).

Mekondjo, whose name means “we are in the struggle”, was born in Angola to Namibian parents who joined SWAPO (South West Africa Peoples’ Organisation) in exile in the early 1980s. In 2022-2023 she was the recipient of a fellowship in the prestigious DAAD Artist-in-Residence programme in Berlin, where she conducted research into ancestral connections, exploring the significance of fertility dolls. In 2022 she became the first black Namibian woman ever to exhibit in the United States, where she is co-represented by Hales. She is a winner of the Villa Romana Prize, for which she will take up a fellowship at Villa Romana in Firenze, Italy, in 2024.

Mekondjo has exhibited widely in Namibia, South Africa, France, the United States, Hong Kong and Germany, most recently in To be Named  at the HausKunstMitte, Berlin and in the acclaimed O Quilombismo  at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), Berlin, curated by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, both in 2023.  This year her work has been shown at Frieze London, Art Central Hong Kong, EXPO Chicago, ARCO Lisboa and Art Joburg. She is represented in multiple international collections. 

This is both Mekondjo’s first solo exhibition and first performance in South Africa.