One of Namibia’s most gifted and long-serving visual artists and musicians Ndasuunje Hishikushitya Shikongeni, popularly known as ‘Hishishi Papa’ or ‘Papa Shikongeni’, is a living embodiment of what it means to be a professional artist.
He is an enigmatic and ingenious artist, a visual artist known for his magnificent prints, a musician well known for his Afro-Jazz music, and for those life has directed into the journey of art – he is also a teacher before whose feet they must just find themselves.
So first things first: What name do we call a man with two monikers – Hishishi Papa or Papa Shikongeni? He makes it clear that people must not confuse his two characters. Hishishi Papa is the musician while Papa Shikongeni is the pan-African philosophical artist.
Papa Shikongeni it is then.
For me it was with trepidation that I secured this interview with Papa Shikongeni. First, I had always found him intimidating, perhaps as one does with art maestros. And we also have a history, Papa Shikongeni and I. I once interviewed him for an article, which he did not take well when it came out in the newspaper. In my defense, I was a young art reporter still learning the ropes.
Hence, when the assignment landed on my desk from the editors, I protested to no avail. Although he appeared inimical at first, I eventually became amusingly engrossed with him in our interview and Papa Shikongeni had to remind me of the limited time we had for the interview because he had to travel to the north immediately after the interview.
Papa Shikongeni has the type of artistic style that is so unique and distinctive that after seeing it once you would recognise it anywhere.
Known for promoting Namibian art and culture through his prints, mixed media, and music, Papa Shikongeni has dabbled in the visual arts all of his life which professed his undying love for the arts.
He said his works resonate ritual order and spirituality, something he strongly believes in.
“I am a spiritual person, when I sleep I see things that only those who are spiritual will understand. I visit mountains, I love nature and I believe in spirit. I’m an ancestor’s child; through them they give me inspiration,” he said.
His visual arts and music have been known for including a variety of materials and subjects, objects of everyday life, issues of post-colonialism, land distribution, poverty, corruption, and traditional rituals. At the same time his powerful and yet sensitive work deals with the ‘other world’ of spirituality and social responsibility.
He said people are ignorant when it comes to visual art so he uses music to alert them about his arts.
“Visual art is a way of expressing oneself, appreciating your surroundings and recognizing the importance of culture. When art inspires me, I do music and when music inspires me, I do art. I’m here to be fruitful, before I die,” he says. Within Papa Shikongeni’ visual art and music one can see his technique of layering in printmaking and in his music. He said his layering speaks to the layers of culture, traditional, tribal, urban, and contemporary and also he tries to make sure people understand his music.
“I decided to sing in Oshiwambo so that I can keep the language in existence. Namibians have lost themselves when it comes to indigenous languages. There is a problem with visual art, it is down pressed and often the only art regarded as a professional career,” he said.
Papa Shikongeni said his art and music and presenting workshops around the world, have brought him wealth.
“My art brought bread to my table. I’ve represented my country as an ambassador to the Americas, China, the United State America (USA), South Africa, and Senegal. I’ve reached my future. If I die, I’ll still remain here because of my work. I am where I am today because of work,” said Papa Shikongeni.
He said Namibian artists invented cardboard technique and he believes he himself did justice to the technique.
“The uniqueness comes with own style and the signature of my art. I draw culture; I tell the world about my people. Our art will never be the same as other artists,” said Papa Shikongeni.
The artist further said that he admires the internationally renowned artists, the iconic Joe Madisia and John Muafangejo.
His passion to see the arts in Namibia growing has seen him mentoring upcoming artists, hosting workshops, contributing to the art policy, contributing at cultural festivals, among others.
Like most artists, he decried lack of government support. “Namibia is lacking institutions to market artist, which leads to some artists relaxing and not getting paid. We are not marketed in music and art,” he said.
In his music, he collaborated with the likes of Adora, Dice, Mazanga, Brickz from SA just to mention a few.
“Each generation has its own mindset, sometimes for collabos to take place people look at famous names but mine is to promote the African beat, boost musicians to use their own traditional beat. So they can be recognised as authentic Namibians. Sometimes it’s not the name that you should look for in a collabo but the skills you can gain from it. I make music not for money but to leave a mark,” he said.
Ndasuunje Hishikushitya Shikongeni was born in 1971 and spent much of his life in exile in Angola where he underwent military training. By his own admission, music has always been his first love even during his military training when he was exiled in Angola before independence. However, it was his love for visual arts that earned him an apprenticeship with the iconic Joe Madisia in 1993. He is a founder of the Tulipamwe International Artist Workshop and boasts many accolades throughout his career.
The awards include an Honour Certificate at the International Sculpture Symposium, which was held in China. His works have seen him tour extensively, participating in numerous group exhibitions in South Africa, Botswana, the UK, Germany, China and Russia.