By Surihe Gaomas WINDHOEK “I want to now open the door for younger visual artists by giving them also the chance to host many solo exhibitions like I did,” said the prominent Namibian visual artist who is affectionately known as Papa Shikongeni. By starting off as a soldier before Independence and transforming into a visual artist, the visionary local and international artist is changing his life into a new dimension – that of being a musician. Through hosting his last solo art exhibition at the National Art Gallery on May 09 this year, Ndasuunje Papa Shikongeni plans to move into the African Aambo Traditional Music arena, giving way to the younger generation of visual artists to also showcase their talents to the public. “It’s time to give the youth a chance,” he says, though he acknowledges it has become ever so difficult for newcomers in the visual arts field to host their own exhibitions. In a recent interview with New Era, the dreadlocked artist who was for long instrumental in developing the artistic landscape of the country is eyeing something he has always had within himself, namely Traditional African Music. Music has always been his first love even during his military training when he was exiled in Angola before independence. However, when he was first introduced by Beata Kasale to the visual graphic artworks of well-known Namibian artist Joseph Madisia in 1993, who in turn shared his knowledge of art, art became part and parcel of his life. Having finished school only with Grade 7 and without any proper qualification, Papa Shikongeni’s passion in the visual arts grew so much that he underwent numerous solo and group exhibitions, training workshops and is also now the director of the John Muafangejo Art Centre (JMAC) in Katutura. “I have changed that place for the unqualified minds, especially for those who are unable to finish school or are disadvantaged,” he said. Currently the centre caters for 27 students every year, while classes are available free of charge for 35 children. Born in Windhoek 35 years ago, Papa Shikongeni was brought up by his Kuku Meme Fina Simeon who took him in as a foster child. After pre-primary school he moved to Windhoek for his primary school at Mandume and Namutoni and went halfway with secondary education at A. Shipena Secondary School. However, due to the struggle for the country’s independence at the time, he left secondary school and went into exile where he was recruited as a freedom fighter in neighbouring Angola. As a naturally down-to-earth person, he became interested in visual arts from a tender age. “My qualification is inborn and I believe I always had the talent,” he added when asked how he managed to get through the field of art without any formal qualification. As a spiritual person, he sometimes feels that the public often misunderstands him, but it is his passion for nurturing visual arts in the country that made him one of the well-known international artists in the country. Documenting the past cultural history of the country is also something close to his heart. In light of this, just recently Shikongeni’s book entitled A Link to the Past – A Bridge to the Future, was published and launched in Ondangwa by the Governor of the Oshana Region Clemens Kashuupulwa. The 13-page booklet focuses on the origin of such artwork mainly in the north central areas, preparation of pottery and clay as well as the entire process involved in making clay pots and different designs of baskets. Another significant contribution was the Glass Making Project that was started this year, which uses Swedish technology to turn waste bottles into valuable items. Not only was this initiative seen as stimulating arts and crafts in the country, but creating the much needed income for poor communities to make a living, while saving the environment from the vast litter of bottles. It is against this background that art should be seen as bringing about developmental change for the future and not only as a hobby. “Artists are still being used ‘bubblegum’ by bureaucrats but artists in my view have a very important role to play in this country as agents of bringing about positive change,” said Papa Shikongeni passionately. Besides being the director of JMAC, the naturally talented visual artist was also instrumental in making inputs in the visual art policy of the Ministry of Education since 1994. Furthermore, he was also a lecturer at the Rundu College of Education as well as the Ongwediva College of Education. Papa Shikongeni also served as a Namibian ambassador abroad, while taking part in solo and group art exhibitions in Senegal, the United Kingdom, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sweden, China, USA, Russia, Germany and South Africa. With the final upcoming exhibition held under the theme: “Elunduluko lya Namibia”, meaning Changes of Namibia, the artist plans to celebrate his motion into the music industry. This exhibition to be held tomorrow is a celebration of the Founding Father of the Nation Dr Sam Nujoma’s Earthday and a contribution towards the printing of the new CD entitled: “Munhumutapa Ontumwa” (Music of SADC). The Minister of Youth, National Service, Sports and Culture John Mutorwa will open the event. In conclusion, he however stressed that although this will be his last solo exhibition in Namibia, he will still continue to create visual art from the well-known Namibian cardboard technique in his time. But for now Aambo Traditional Music is the way to go for Papa Shikongeni to create a larger awareness of cultural values among the young generation.