Vincent came running. “I was in that house cleaning their swimming pool,” he said with the broad smile I had gotten used to in Africa by now. “The rain and the wind had mucked it up,” he added, wiping the drizzle off his face.
This was my third visit to the Namibian capital, Windhoek, and I had passed through the “art island” —my name for the roundabout near the parking lot where Vincent had set up shop—umpteen times on my way to the supermarket nearby. Sometimes I would see Vincent working on something, but mostly it would be somebody else, a pleasant harlequin, who kept an eye on the wares and hurried for him whenever anyone showed interest.
The art island had stick metal figures of the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and African buffalo), insects and birds, tribal folk, and flowers. There were statuettes, musical instruments—some of them working—and masks. And then there were the windmills—ranging from table-top models to man-size installations—which rotated with a fury, trying to keep up with Windhoek’s famous winds. The name of the city is probably coined from two Afrikaans/Dutch words meaning “wind” and “corner”.
Vincent’s art reminded me of Marcel Duchamp’s famous “Bicycle Wheel”, and the kinetic art some artist friends dabbled in. Most of Vincent’s components were not manufactured: he made use of things already there, like the automobile bearing for the drivetrain that makes the windmills turn. He managed mostly by recycling scrap, but the bearing had to be purchased from junkyards, sometimes new even, which made the windmills not exactly cheap.
“With so much wind in Windhoek, I thought it would look good—turning all the time. And it had to turn all the time,” said Vincent. His customers were mostly households and hotels with small acreages and the quality assemblage gave him good word-of-mouth publicity. The windmills were not site-specific either—a friend brought it for her terrace where she was setting up a braai.
- Vincent Karavina is an immigrant artist in Windhoek, Namibia.
- While tour operators of Namibia organise art tours, they often ignore immigrant artists like Vincent.
- Vincent also works as an odd-job hand to make ends meet.
- Vincent’s art reminds one of Marcel Duchamp’s famous “Bicycle Wheel” and kinetic art.
Vincent Karavina arrived in Namibia from Bulawayo in south-west Zimbabwe, gateway to Matobo National Park. The park is famous for cave art from the Stone Age. Hundreds of renditions of hunter-gatherers from thousands of years ago adorn the Inanke Caves. A good reason why Vincent, who never had any formal initiation into art, believes art runs in his blood. “I came here because Namibia had potential in terms of having less population than most other African countries.”
He added that this meant there were not many artists catering to the large number of tourists passing through for safaris and sightseeing. Some tour organisers in Windhoek had a half- to full-day itinerary, giving art enthusiasts the opportunity to interact with local artists, who thus received the much-needed international exposure. But, unintentionally perhaps, tour operators often ignored immigrant artists like Vincent.
“I came here with proper documents and valid passports, all of which expired,” he grinned, almost laughing at fate. Vincent stayed with his wife and two kids on rent at Katutura (which in a local dialect means “the place where people do not want to live”), a suburban township of Windhoek that came up in the 1960s when Africans were removed from the city proper. “It is not that I don’t want to renew my papers,” he said. “But when it is a call between feeding your family or getting arrested, I am caught between a rock and a hard place.” He laughed loudly this time, and I could not help but join in.
More from Thommen Jose: Smell the coffee
In many African countries I visited, there was a renewed thrust on farming, which has got sizeable portions of national budget allocations. There was a widespread belief in the sector’s potential to reduce poverty. Now, if countries got around to reviving it, improving food production and job creation, would it benefit the artists? Most artists I knew chose to just create with their hands, and not do much else. I asked Vincent this question as he was already a preferred odd-job hand in the area. While we were talking, a labour contractor told him to get ready the next day for some tile-laying work behind the supermarket.
“We, like anybody else, need to eat, feed our families,” he replied, stern but the smile never leaving his face. “We create things with our hands, so growing things will not be difficult for us.”
Thommen Jose is head of communication with an aviation firm, a farmer and a distance motorcyclist in his spare time, and a travel writer.