Namibia’s Lone Stone Men At Venice Biennale

19 Aug 2022

The untouched nature and almost mystical beauty of Namibia's northwest fascinates everyone who experiences it and one can sense the millions of years of history of our earth.

The rock formations are ancient and debris from long-eroded mountains covers entire areas.

Lately one encounters human-like figures here and there along the way - sitting thoughtfully on a rock, or standing supported by a stick, or leaning against a tree trunk.

They are stone (age) people, male figures artfully formed from local stones and held together with round iron rods.

The encounter between the travellers and the almost life-size stone men is one-sided, but in a way interactive. One marvels and is fascinated, touches the - by the way chained - figures and asks oneself and the fellow travellers why they were placed in the middle of nowhere, what the meaning behind it could be.

The silent stone men stimulate the soul and brain and certainly provide something to talk about as the journey continues. So, you deal with these stone figures. The photos and “selfies” taken are later shared online on social media.

Is that what the artist intended? Just for selfies and then driving on? That would be too superficial. Should the stone figures touch people's souls, so to speak, and encourage them to think about the meaning of life and the future of mankind? One does not know.

In north-western Namibia one encounters artistic stone sculptures. Photo: Facebook

The artist remains anonymous

The artist's pseudonym is "RENN". He is said to be of Caucasian descent, in his sixties, working in the tourism sector and having discovered his artistic talent quite late in life. Those who know who RENN is remain silent and guard his secret.

Does he create these characters alone and without local help? Then travellers would certainly have met him. The stone sculptures look magical; maybe their creator put them there at night?

RENN continues to be a mystery. ‘Works of art are more important than their creators’ , seems to be his motto.

In 2014, these stone sculptures were sighted for the first time, also in Windhoek; unfortunately, those in the capital were not spared from vandalism.

The figures in the Kunene Region appear lonely. They are always fascinating; even if some critics think, they disturb the grandeur of the landscape and spoil it.

A group of three stone men resting in north-western Namibia with high mountains in the background. Photo: Venice Biennale.

From Namibia to the Venice Biennale

According to informed circles, an Italian consultant for the construction of tourism lodges in Namibia since 2014 has established contacts with the organisers of the famous Venice Biennale, an international art exhibition in the Italian lagoon city.

For the first time, Namibia is represented at the "La Biennale di Venezia" with a Namibian pavilion on the island of La Certosa and only RENN's sculptures can be viewed there - until November 27, 2022.

The starting point of the pavilion is a documentary photo exhibition in the old "Castello delle Polveri" on the island. It shows a selection of 23 photographs that depict some of RENN's sculptures and provide a visual explanation of the project. The exhibition also houses some abstract sculptures created by RENN using recovered material on the island, including the circles of life and the metamorphosis.

The exhibition continues in the park of the old castle and invites visitors to “hunt for art” on the island. There, some lone stone men that were transported some 11,000 km from Namibia to Venice can be viewed.

According to the exhibition catalogue, the design of the Namibian pavilion at the 59th Biennial is an artistic collaboration between RENN and the creative duo Amebe. This is the first-ever exhibition of RENN's work. The motto of the pavilion is "a bridge to the desert" - although the north-west of Namibia is not desert except for the narrow coastal strip.

An anonymous artist has created these lone stone men in Namibia. Photo: Hello Africa

Criticism by Namibian artists

Some Namibian artists have expressed public disappointment that only one artist is participating in the country's first participation in the Venice Biennale. RENN is unknown in the Namibian contemporary art scene, his sculptures have "never been shown in any gallery or museum" before, they stated.

Namibia's art debut in Venice was therefore "poorly conceptualized and inappropriate," according to an online petition. Several well-known Namibian artists would have deserved to be present in Venice. The petition contains a graphic that says, "Not our Namibian pavilion".

Be that as it may, the lonely human-shape stone sculptures of RENN in north-western Namibia fascinate many people and are popular photo opportunities, causing amazement and digital conversations on social media worldwide.

In Venice, some of these sculptures can be viewed at the Biennale until November 27, 2022.

Brigitte Weidlich

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