UNESCO empowering Namibian leaders for artistic freedom
It is 7:30 a.m. Namibia’s golden sun has barely risen as Michelle Inixias enters her office. She starts her day greeting all the staff and trainees of the COSDEF Arts & Craft Centre, where she works as a coordinator. Oftentimes, new faces show up at this Swakopmund-based Centre, eyes glowing with the optimism of rising artists ready to deploy their creative spirit. Michelle never has a dull moment. She is driven by a powerful sense of purpose: to give artists the power, skills, and knowledge to unleash their talent in visual arts, graphic design and fashion, etc. “The Centre’s doors are always open. I want everyone to be heard and happy”, asserts Michelle with the firm enthusiasm of a persuaded advocate for artistic freedom.
Namibia has a phenomenal artistic scene, but this burning creativity is sometimes restricted by social and religious norms and a lack of policy support. It is Michelle’s vision to make the Centre a safe and creative haven for young and old Namibians alike to freely express themselves, acquire new knowledge and develop business.
When Michelle heard about UNESCO holding a workshop targeting both civil society and the government to discuss artistic freedom, she resolved to participate. The 25 participants composed an assorted crowd across the stakeholders landscape, from gallery curators and design educators to intellectual property experts and civil servants. The workshop held on 28-30 April 2021 in Windhoek within the framework of the 2021 World Press Freedom Day Conference, aimed at stimulating exchanges on existing laws, policies and measures that promote and protect artistic expressions; strengthening understanding of State’s obligations and civil society’s roles in terms of policy design, data collection and monitoring of artistic freedom. As Michelle puts it, “Our trainees should use their art to make change where change is necessary”.
COSDEF Arts & Crafts Centre, where Michelle leads a multicultural team promoting artistic freedom
Loini Iizyenda, lecturer at the University of Namibia in Windhoek, is fascinated with fashion, textile art and cultural heritage. Her artistic drive has taken her to actively promote the freedom to imagine, create and distribute artworks free of pressures or interference. In her job, Loini encourages her students to think outside the box. Thus, promoting artistic freedom is all the more necessary to let artists unleash their creative potential. Namibia holds a wealth of talented creators, but some struggle to tread beyond the ideological enclosures limited by audience reactions or a funding corporation. This is why it was so important for Loini to participate in UNESCO’s workshop to enlarge her mindset with regard to artistic freedom.
Understanding challenges and engaging in artistic freedom
Loini is very aware of the difficulties encountered by Namibian artists. Be it by self-censorship or restrictions on funding, creative expressions are often curbed in the country to comply with what is socially acceptable. Art displaying any hint of nudity has been particularly targeted because of socially conservative attitudes.
Namibia has ratified UNESCO’s 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions and committed to the implementation of the 1980 Recommendation concerning the Status of the Artists, both of which provide a comprehensive policy framework to develop a dynamic creative sector. In Namibia, the freedom of expression and cultural rights are firmly recognized by the Constitution. Furthermore, Namibia has developed an Arts, Culture and Heritage Policy and is currently working on the revision of its copyright legislation with the support of UNESCO with the funding from the European Union. Those frameworks should further enhance the socio, economic and cultural rights of artists and culture professionals.
Nonetheless, such commitment to enshrine and promote artistic freedom has not always translated into practice. This is why Loini stresses the importance of being aware of the venues available for artists to freely express themselves, and their knowledge of the mechanisms protecting them under the Convention and other international instruments. The artists’ freewheeling creativity has too often been limited by boundaries imposed from outside observers. Thus, through lively debates, participants learnt about the implications of limitations to artistic freedom which result in huge economic, social and cultural losses, deprivation of artists of their means of expression and livelihoods, and creation of unsafe environments for all those engaged in the arts and their audiences. Teamwork also facilitated an assessment of Namibia’s statutory reporting on artistic freedom in the framework of quadrennial periodic reports that signatory countries of the 2005 Convention are expected to submit to UNESCO.
Powerful synergies facilitated between peers has further built a sense of belonging and a joint commitment. “We must be very supportive of each other and encourage creativity in the country”, emphasized Loini. “Thanks to this workshop, Namibian art professionals further weave a firm web of mutual contacts, creating a promising and vibrant ecosystem.”
Namibian arts: from stephane333 on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
“It opened my eyes to the importance of an artist’s duty to reflect the times and bring about change or attention to issues in our society,” Michelle declares. The potential for artists and art managers to lead the promotion of artistic freedom is hereby unlocked.
Loini also remains sanguine about the impact on artistic freedom, not only on participants but also the wider communities where arts and crafts thrive as well. She explains how Namibian creators are now better informed about the policies available to support their art ventures. Even more, their example will encourage many aspiring young artists to follow the path of their dreams instead of forfeiting their careers out of fear of rejection.
From their respective worlds, Michelle and Loini are just some of the many Namibian professionals pushing the frontiers of artistic expression ever forward. Looking at the future, Loini remains enthusiastic. She will continue exploring the potential of Artificial Intelligence for Namibian creators, while striving to instill in her students her passion for creative design and product development. Michelle, for her part, believes she will continue promoting artistic freedom from COSDEF, but now with an increased awareness of the legitimate rights of young artists to express themselves. With her office door perpetually open, Michelle will keep welcoming the next generation of Namibian creators riding the wave of change.
Since 2016, UNESCO has been advocating for artistic freedom on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) conference and organizing training workshops. In 2021, Namibia hosted the WPFD, exactly 20 years after the landmark adoption of the Windhoek Declaration of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press which led to the adoption of 3 May as the World Press Freedom Day.The artistic freedom-related work is generously funded by the Kingdom of Norway through the Aschberg Programme for artists and cultural professionals. For more information about the Programme, please visit: https://en.unesco.org/creativity/convention
**This article has been produced in the frame of the project Development of a communication strategy and the implementation plan as well as the strategy implementation services, for UNESCO. 13 human-impact articles were produced for dissemination in UNESCO’s website and social media. The stories highlight the projects implemented by UNESCO (including the International Fund for Cultural Diversity) and the impact achieved on the beneficiaries through an “IAI” approach, by focusing attention on Issue, Action and Impact. GlobalCAD directly tapped the beneficiaries based on contacts facilitated by UNESCO to obtain their testimonies and multimedia files related to the projects.**