Immanuel Natangwe Hafeni is a self-taught visual artist born and raised in Windhoek, Namibia. He is slowly emerging despite the hardships of the Namibian underground art scene. His journey explores a combination of different art forms such as culture, design, aesthetics, architecture, collage, photography, and cinematography.
BY AISHA KABIRU MOHAMMED
This conversation took place between Nigeria and Namibia, via email.
Aisha: Hello Natangwe. Thank you for joining us.
Natangwe: Hello Aisha. I hope you’re doing great.
Aisha: I’m doing very well, thank you. I hope you’re well too. I like to ask about thought processes behind every artwork, but this time I’m tempted to ask about the subject matter of the photo series. How did you come up with it?
Natangwe: Well, to be honest, the photo project Reach completely took me off guard and I am still in disbelief at how it is being received by the audience. I crafted this project some time ago, during the first lockdown in 2020, a time when the world was crumbling down right in front of us. Throughout most of my creative projects, I struggle a lot with coming up with the subject matter or what I want the project to be about. Only at the end of finalizing most of my projects do I have a clue what it might be about. Let’s say it’s the opposite of having a subject matter at the beginning of a project, which then gives you some sort of direction as to how you want your project to be.
Reach can be expressed in so many ways, depending on what emotions the person feels once they come across it. For me as the creator behind it, it symbolizes hope and an upright pillar for fellow creatives around the world, especially in my country, where art is not well represented or recognized. That there is still hope to achieve and become anything you want, when you use your strength to reach out during these difficult times. As I said, Reach can be used and felt to fill the void of different emotions. It could be depression, grief, sadness, loneliness, happiness, fear, anger, you name it. The photo sequences each have a distinct feature. The hand reaching out to the plant, which creates a beautiful silhouette, portrays that you have to go out there and keep trying no matter the circumstances. The beam of light in the background represents a new and different future while the vignette surrounding it represents the past. We then later move on to the hand reaching out to dead roses, which later goes up in flames, to portray how hard it is to survive in these difficult times as a creative. As I always tell my audience, “Reach is yours—claim and feel it!”
Aisha: Why rose petals though? Why not something else?
Natangwe: The rose petals are a symbol of hope, even if people dispose of them once they dry out. I feel like they still emit some sort of life in them as they have just transformed into a new and different appearance. Even when they are dry, they are as good as being alive and blooming. When they are dry, they are in their resting state.
[Smiles] A few friends find it crazy that I collect dry rose petals for decor and aesthetics.
“Hope comes in many forms, just like the beauty of dry or burned roses.“
Aisha: I noticed that even after they were burned they still looked so beautiful. So would you say that roses in this photo series represent hope?
Natangwe: Yes. Hope comes in many forms, just like the beauty of dry or burned roses.
Aisha: That’s beautiful. Let’s go into the process of shooting the photo series. Could you take us through it?
Natangwe: The shooting process was relatively easy, since I’ve mastered the art of self-portrait with my camera. If I can remember very well, it was a beautiful Sunday morning and I was really in a good mood and in high spirits to create. I have been noticing this light that comes into my room during the morning hours as it projects this silhouette on the wall when I open the window blinds for sunlight. I thought to myself, why not have a photo session with my Monstera plant since it had these beautiful large curved leaves.
The “I don’t know what I’m doing” Session: I wanted to find a way to get more light into the room, so I used a mirror which I placed in the yard. The difficult part was placing the mirror at a 90-degree angle so that direct sunlight could reflect off of it into the room through the window, which worked perfectly.
The Muse Session: I then took a couple of photos with the self-timer as I reached out to the plant. I could say I was free styling throughout the session as I did not know what the motive was.
The Editing Session: This is the editing session, where I had to pick the best pictures that I felt could make a statement once I published it. It took me the whole day to conclude the photo series. The session with the dry rose petals was similar to the hand/plant session, but it got extremely difficult as I had to dip them in gasoline to intensify the fire to try and get a good shot of the flames without having to get myself burned or setting the room on fire. Eventually it all worked out and I was so impressed by the shots I got that day. Again, that’s the beauty of creating without a plan.
Aisha: What did the process teach you?
Natangwe: The process has taught me so much. Not knowing how powerful Reach was until I submitted it for the literary magazine, it has opened my eyes. One of the good things I take to heart is that art can be expressed in so many ways. One can really get lost in the moment and not be aware of the surroundings. The form of expression is very important, you just have to get the work out there. Being truthful and honest with the way you feel defines the outcome of your work.
Aisha: Is there anything you would do differently if you had the chance to reshoot?
Natangwe: I was very skeptical of my submission to Doek! as I felt Reach was very personal to me and I didn’t know whether it would go far as an underdog amongst really great artists. Also, being a fan of outdoor photography, that would probably be the one thing I would do differently if I had to reshoot. Outdoor photography is unique because of the natural light and scenery making it easy to edit. Under the Doek! catalogue I have another project titled Lines which was shot outdoors, but I didn’t enter the awards with it because it lacked a bit of sympathy and thus my instincts telling me it wouldn’t have gone as far as Reach. which has been a blessing in disguise. It came about at the perfect time.
Aisha: If your second project had a bit of sympathy would you have entered it? And if you didn’t make it to the shortlist with Reach, what would you have done with it?
Natangwe: It was a win-lose situation for me when I entered the awards. Not knowing what the judging criteria was, it was difficult to tell what qualities they were looking for. Being an underdog amongst amazing visual artists, I was not going to stand a chance to make it to the shortlist with my second project, Lines. Most of the visual art submissions were slightly similar or had elements of architectural photography. I had to trust my instincts and enter with Reach, which was different and had a lot of sympathy. Not to sideline my second project, throughout my creative processes I entail to always try to tell a story and pay attention to detail. The second project was more about hope, appreciating all the little things that don’t matter.
Aisha: I’d say you are also an amazing artist. You didn’t answer my second question though. If Reach didn’t make the shortlist, what would you have done with it?
Natangwe: Seeing that art is not so popular in most African countries, if Reach didn’t make it to the shortlist, I would have probably printed out a few postcards to gift some friends or archived it on my records like I do with most of my projects. On the other hand, seeing that the Doek! magazine really boosted my confidence and exposed me to an audience I didn’t have, I would have also tried my luck to enter other Visual Arts awards across Africa or beyond. Seeing how powerful the project is, ]I will definitely be entering competitions with it in 2022.
Aisha: That’s wonderful to know. Thank you for talking to us Natangwe. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours.
Natangwe: Thank you Aisha. Happy holidays.
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Aisha Kabiru Mohammed is a law student at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Kaduna state is her home town. Aisha is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her pieces revolve around identity, feminism, and the African mind and body as political and spiritual entities. In 2019, Aisha won the inaugural Andrew Nok Poetry Prize, awarded by YELF. She later judged the 2020 edition of the prize. When she isn’t studying law and writing, you can find her drinking tea, reading, stroking cats and volunteering to spread mental health awareness and to end SGBV. Aisha currently hosts a podcast segment for Ayamba LitCast called Poet Box Series.