Usakos photographic exhibition made impression abroad

Anastasia Paulus

Windhoek – The mobile photographic exhibition depicting ordinary life at the small town of Usakos during the apartheid colonial period has been well received by audiences abroad, following its tour of southern Africa and Europe earlier in July 2017.   

The exhibition titled: “Usakos:  Photographs beyond Ruins. The Old Location Albums, 1920s to 1960s” which is currently on show at the University of Namibia was displayed in South Africa and in Maputa, Mozambique.

The unique nature of the exhibition, ensured that it generated interests about Usakos, which is working toward establishing a museum. The photographs that made the exhibition are from private collections of four residents of the town  and are all women.

During its stopover in Maputo, the Portuguese Cultural Centre that hosted the exhibition had organised a workshop with some well-known Mozambican photographers and visual historians.

“The workshop interrogated the idea of the archive in Africa where the collections of documents and images heavily reflect a `colonial gaze’.

“The exhibition demonstrated that showing images from private photograph albums and archives can be an effective way of providing different views of the past and `decolonising the museum’.

“The Usakos photographic collections are very special in an Southern African contexts as such private photographs are very rarely kept in official archives and thus have been unknown to a broader public,” Saara Ilovu, the Usakos’ local economic development officer said in interview.

“The richness and uniqueness of the Usakos collections explains the success of the Usakos exhibition even beyond the continent with venues in Switzerland, Germany, France, the United States and now in London, Great Britain, where parallel exhibition are is still on show in the Brunei Gallery until end of September”.

The exhibition is the initiative of the Usakos Town in conjunction with other stakeholders including the Museum Association of Namibia and UNAM in hope to revive the outback town.

The council is also working with a group of enthusiastic students from Switzerland who accompanied the travelling exhibitions, thereby making them the ‘Unofficial Ambassadors for Usakos’ according to Ilovu.

Ilovu said the Usakos Town Council plans to create a museum that will encourage people to spend time and, therefore, money at the town.

She said the exhibition will be on permanent display in the museum “and we believe that this and other new displays that we are creating will create a unique selling point for the town.

“The exhibition is accompanied by a book that is for sale in Usakos and this will all make people curious to visit our town and see the ways in which we are working.  We have a terrible high rate of youth unemployment and the museum project is part of our strategy to change that,” she said.

The museum will be established once the town council moves to its new building.  The old historical offices will then be turned into a museum.

“We plan to have new displays which will showcase some of our local heroes, such as the Hon. Theo-Ben Gurirab and also some of the other nearby attractions, such as the Spitzkoppe as we would like to encourage people to make day trips to visit these sights,” she said.

Gurirab, former prime mister and speaker of National Assemble as well as one of pioneers of struggle for Namibian independence is one of the sons of Usakos. Works and Transport Minister Alpheus !Naruseb was also born at the town.

The historic town is situated on the banks of Khan River, and on the edge of Namib Desert in Erongo region. It was founded in 1900 as watering stop for locomotive between the coastal town of Swakopmund and the northern mining town of Tsumeb.

Ilovu revealed that the town has been in talks with experts at the University of Namibia to conduct a survey of the remains of the Old Location.

“We are planning to fill the Apartheid gap – the space where the Old Location once stood.  However, it is important that we preserve some of the ruins as a memory of the past,” said the town’s official.

The photographs capture ordinary life at Usakos during the colonial period, before people were forcefully removed from the centre of town and divided between the new `Black’ township of Hakhaseb and Coloured township of Erongosig.

“Usakos had huge warehouses that were used by the railways and we believe that these also have potential as heritage sites that could even be renovated as they would provide an awesome creative space.

“The town also has an ancient well and even a hidden swimming pool. In addition the huge railway yard and the adjoining former transhipping area offer fascinating insights into Namibia’s long railway history. We believe that, with investment, our heritage can be one of the engines for development in our town,” she said.

September 2017
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