Madisia: A warrior for art

Joseph Madisia, or Uncle Joe as he is affectionately known, is one of the oldest visual artists in the country.The outspoken Madisia has been an unrelenting warrior in the fight to educate Namibians about art, using it as a tool for communication and exposing it to the rest of the world, since before his tenure as the Director of the National Art Gallery of Namibia (NAGN).

Who is Joseph Madisia?

I am a 61 years of age old man, a family man, husband of a southern Namibian communal farmer, a father of grown up kids, a grandfather and on top of all a veteran of visual arts, dedicated to his artistic vocation. How long have you been an artist and how did you get into it?

Artmaking was always part of my life for as long as I can remember, since my childhood. I was excellent at school in subjects such as history, geography, biology and technical drawings for woodwork.

What does art mean to you?

Art is a means of communication where you don’t necessarily have to use words, it can even comfortably side with sign-language for those who cannot hear but can see images of art. Art is sort a universal language.

You recently exhibited African Paradox, what was it about and why was it important to you to have such an exhibition?

My recent works of art exhibited was intended to excavate the deeper symbolism and meanings in each artwork, and to reflect on issues to do with ownership, possession, abundance, greed, money… you name it. Some of the art work also threw light on theology, ethics, economics and biblical studies, and they sought to explore how African people find value in having things.

It is all about how having things in turn gives value to life in communities and society, including the grassroots as a whole. The exhibition was intended to speak on behalf of the concerns that occupy our current youth, which is why I opted for Job Shipululo Amupanda as the keynote speaker at the official opening event.

Do you think it had the desired effects?

Yes. It reached the desired audience in particular the youth and much of the open minded Namibians who seek to talk about our current relevant national social challenges, such as the gap between the rich and poor, sacred land matters, gender equality, our history as Namibians and Vision 2030.

My exhibition was also well presented on the social media such Facebook which enabled exhibited work to be viewed by many beyond Namibian borders as far as Seattle in the US, India, Germany, Norway, Sweden, UK, Brazil, Botswana and South Africa to mention a few. I did receive positive feedback on my work by both the visitors-book at the FNCC gallery, in the local media as well as on Facebook social media pages. This was more a testimony that art crosses all boundaries. It enabled me to share my exhibition with Namibian Artists living abroad such as Sylvo Schroeder in India, Herman Mbamba in Norway and Sandile Madi in USA.

You have been campaigning to be nominated as a member of the Board of Trustees for the NAGN, why is it important to you to be a part of the board?

The National Art Gallery Act No14 of 2000, makes provision in Section 5, clearly indicated in it subsections (c) and (d) of National Art Gallery Act of Namibia Act of 2000 that there are possibilities to ensure regional representation on the board.

However, the current outgoing board was not composed for regional inclusion. And I am afraid that will continue to strain the decentralization of Namibian Art. One gets the impression on the electronic and print media that the arts are only destined for Windhoek dwellers, but Namibia is not Windhoek and Windhoek is not Namibia.

What difference do you think you being a part of the board will make?

One of the most important programs to decentralize art in my reign as Director of NAGN was to bring the Mobile Exhibition System on board to take art to the people. However, it was dropped after I left, because workers were too office bound at the gallery. Just look at the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture website and you will observe that one of their most pertinent challenges faced is their slow pace to decentralize art to the regions. The Directorate Arts blame it on their limited structure, and that is ridiculous after 25years of Namibian Independence.

What would you say some of your more notable projects are?

Some of my notable projects are the Prime Minister’s wall, Heroes Day Owumgoolumbashe Monument designed and built in 2004, to be part of the committee to decide on the Namibian Dollar notes in the early 1990’s, and currently the ‘Cassinga’ and ‘Sheetekela’ Memorial Shrine designs done in conjunction with the Heritage Council of Namibia.

What other projects are you working on?

I am currently busy in my third week of the ten weeks with an online Graphic Design Study Course at the University of Cape Town (UCT). That is to renovate myself for the last lap in my life span to document my art and my life. I know that I owe such information to the future generation. Also to do some income generation assignments to feed myself and my family.

I am also doing research, when time provides, in preparation for my next book on the history of ‘puberty rituals in the Nama Girl’s culture’, wherein the significance and relevance of cultural traditions in our contemporary life will make sense to our youth.

What’s integral to the work of an artist?

For most artists, the world has a moral dimension, meaning there are overriding issues of integrity, dignity and responsibility; they describe values for human survival and peace. This is true for many of us, but the artists have the ability to express these issues so powerfully that they can influence a very wide audience.

What role does the artist have in society?

Art can be transforming and educational, or even entertaining with a bit of comedy, but it can be also revolutionary. There exist huge numbers of misfortunes like HIV/ Aids, crime, rape, gender abuse, passion killings, corruption, ethnicity and nepotism in Namibia. That’s when one needs the artists who are conscious of such social misery, who can use their art in such a way that it transforms society.

What other jobs have you pursued apart from art?

I was a glass cutter, carpenter, musician, factory worker, mine worker, assistant to professional photographer, monument designer and the first black Director of the National Art Gallery of Namibia to mention a few.

Are you ever bored with your work?

Never, I think, eat, sleep and do art all the time, and if not, then my family needs my attention. I consider art and the making of it as my life long vocation.

What are the common misconceptions about you and your work?

Common misconceptions about me are that my name ‘Madisia’ is a very rare Namibian surname to the extent that some uninformed Namibians thought I am a foreigner who has lived in Namibia since birth. Some others think a black artist’s work should be naïve and innocent, but most of my works are realism, provocative and speak about the joys, tears, triumphs and hopes of our people. Others think again that Namibian artists can only make a living when they live and practice art in Windhoek, but I prove it to myself and many that whilst living in Mariental, it is still possible to create art that can capture national attention.

Have you ever thought of becoming a kapana vendor?

Well, I like to cook at home and enjoy organizing a good braai or family and friends. Maybe kapana is one of the ingredients to be good cook, so why not think about it, anything is possible in life.

If you were ice cream, what flavour would you be and why?

My flavour would have been vanilla with a coarse layer of chocolate over it. Because the course layer would express my coarseness as a black man with a straight mind, and the softness of vanilla ice cream my tenderness as a human being with a soft spot for the underdog.

What is your least favourite thing about humanity?

My least favourite thing about humans is jealousy and greed. I believe that I do exist because of other people who made a positive impact in my life…’In Ubuntu’, which is my motto.

What is the funniest or most embarrassing thing that happened to you recently?

Somebody recently spoke to me recently on the phone about my art and life outlook. She was very much keen to meet me, but she was disappointed when we met, because she could not believe I was old and married on top of it all. I am probably the oldest living black Namibian visual artist in our history and the only visual artist whose second marriage lasted for over 25 years. Another embarrassing moment was to be found not guilty in court for an apparent assault on a gallery worker. The protracted court case lasted from 2010 until 2014 and it was all along about the tugof- war of our National Art Heritage Collection, whereby workers were used to frame me.

What is your spirit animal?

My spirit animal is a ‘horse’ in the Chinese horoscope. My personal totem is a pig, from there the name ‘Gulupe’ came about that my grandfather used to call me.

Would you rather wear genital exposing leather chaps or tattoo your whole face?

I would rather wear genital exposing leather chaps to express my African roots, from there the artwork titled “The Dual Life Path of an African.” But never tattoos in my face.