This year we’ll be working with Ovambo women in Northern Namibia to build the Powell-Cotton Museum’s first new collection in over 50 years. Through a process of co-creation with academics and craftswomen in Namibia, a new permanent display will showcase contemporary culture and experiences from the African continent for the first time in decades.

In 1936-37 Diana and Antoinette Powell-Cotton collected approximately 4500 objects from northern Namibia and southern Angola, building one of the largest collections from the region by European collectors. Some of the highlights of the collection are clothes and accessories made for special occasions, particularly those worn by women for marriage and initiation ceremonies. The new collection has been commissioned from six women in northern Namibia who continue to make these outfits, evolving these traditional garments for their communities and customers.

We need to stop ‘speaking for’ others and give up the space for the communities historically ‘collected’ by museums to speak freely on their own terms. Putting Ovambo women at the heart of a project to make a contemporary collection that will be on long-term display will, I hope, signal to the communities whose objects we hold that we are serious about changing how we work.

Commissioning new work in Namibia

In April 2022 some of the project team – Dr. Napandulwe Shiweda (University of Namibia, Windhoek), Dr. Nicola Stylianou (University of Sussex), Erasmus Stephanus (filmmaker and photographer based in Ongwediva, Namibia) spent a week travelling in the Oshana region of northern Namibia, on the border with Angola. They met with each of the specialist makers, discussed the Museum’s historic collection and asked each of the women how they would like to see their community and work represented in the Powell-Cotton Museum. Each of the women was interviewed on film, and these films will form part of the display of their work.

In addition to collecting these more traditional cultural objects, the team were lucky enough to meet with Maria Caley, Lecturer in Visual Arts at the University of Namibia (Windhoek). Maria’s students recently undertook a project to create textile designs based on objects from the Museum’s Angolan and Namibian collections, and we were fortunate to be able to purchase some of these stunning designs for the collection. Works were purchased from Erikka Kapiye, Laimmy N. Moses and Shiyelekeni Silas. The two sets of objects collected showcase very different responses to our historic collection and provide a rich story. These collections will go on display side by side in the Museum.

Commissioned Craftswomen

Tresia Shekudja

Saara W Simoni

Rebecca Hialulwa

Lucia Kandjengo

Ndehafa Kakonda

Laina Wmetupunga

Contemporary Culture on Display

In June 2022 we’ll be welcoming Dr. Shiweda and Dr. Stylianou to the Museum. Working with the wider museum team, the project team will plan the new displays and interpretive text ready for installation later in the summer. In addition to the contemporary objects, the new display will feature film footage of the commissioned craftswomen speaking about their work. We hope that Dr. Shiweda’s visit will also offer an opportunity for a public event about the project, so keep an eye on the website for more details.

To complement the contemporary displays, the project will create a new display of historic material collected by Diana and Antoinette, focusing on key individuals who helped them travel and collect. These ‘museum makers’ include Africans and Europeans and reflect the diversity of lives, interests and ideas embedded in our historic collections.

What next?

We hope that this project is just the start of an ongoing and long-term relationship between the museum and communities of descent in Namibia. We are already in discussion about how we can host a photographic exhibition using our historic photograph collection, in the Oshana Region, and we look forward to building our relationship with the University of Namibia.

Project Team

Dr. Napandulwe Shiweda

Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture

University of Namibia

Dr. Nicola Stylianou

Freelancer Researcher and Curator

University of Sussex

Dr. Inbal Livne

Head of Collections

Powell-Cotton Museum

Erasmus Stephanus

Filmmaker and photographer based in Ongwediva, Namibia

About the project

The project has been generously funded by an Arts Council England Project Grant, and the University of Sussex. Funding for the commissioned objects from the beadwork specialists has come from the Powell-Cotton Museum.

This project has come out of the ‘Making African Connections: Decolonial Futures for Colonial Collections’ project, run by the University of Sussex and funded by the AHRC, which highlighted the significance of the historic Ovambo collections held by the Museum.