A group exhibition by Namibian artists

Improvising a just community


Photography by Kirsten Wechslberger
Text by Melanie Sarantou, April 2016


Roughly connected in webs of meaning, communities tend to organically shape in clusters as people live and improvise their existences from one moment to the next. Communities’ histories, experiences and life narratives shape futures that are part of or indirectly connected to centres, which may also be shifting. For many Namibians, especially those forging their lives in economic disadvantaged margins, shifting centres may mean political and perhaps social freedom, but the gnawing shackles of poverty continue to hold them back.

Due to the complex dynamics impacting on marginalisation in Namibia, such as poverty, crime, political relations, new social and economic stratification, some Namibians are continually driven to the fringes of society. Identities are informed by these complex dynamics in the margin and only a few are able to escape these peripheral realities. Those that do mostly find themselves negotiating new margins and precarious in-between realities, such as immigration, but these inevitably remain choices.

Living and working in the margin of South Australia as an arts worker in a remote Indigenous Australian community, and being an immigrant to Australia, are both choices. My choices to be part of different margins result from attempts to escape or negotiate through experiences gained from previous margins, such as crime and limitations I experienced as a white woman living and working in Namibia. Yet, I am drawn to margins as they are uneasy spaces that inspire creativity, allowing me to improvise, express and explore my identities.

Focus on making and ‘working through’

In my weaving titled ‘Just Community’ I explore themes of marginalisation and stratification. Four weaves, constructed from flax twine, rope and chain strata, symbolise Namibia’s economic and class stratified communities. The weaves are connected and intersected with scaffolding which symbolise interstitial spaces – those in-between spaces and moments where identities are in flux, shaping and changing.

‘Just Community’ is an exploration of my feelings and thoughts around being part of and living in just communities where margins and schemas become blurred through a focus on questioning the status quo, creating awareness, looking out for one another and the self, and to care and empower through the sharing of knowledge. Due to the design, methods and materials I’ve used, my installation intends to narrate notions of communities, webs, connections, sheltering, differences, imperfections, intermediation, transparency and honesty. These weaves are not intended to be aesthetic accomplishments, but a result of physical and emotional exploration, improvisation and working through a life situation using my senses, tacit knowledge, experiences and materials.

Art is a media that enables the shaping of identities, while it also serves as a tool to process relationships within communities. Artists and makers negotiate and sustain their identities through their practices in spite of the challenges they face. Just as art making offers ways to ‘work through’ particular life challenges, narratives offer ways to make sense of difficult circumstances. Artists and makers’ narratives also reveal how quality of life and work environments impact on their art practices, as narratives function in social realms and stories play a crucial role in socially sustaining artists and their making practices (Sarantou 2014).

In ‘Just Community’ I investigate how art offers me a way to work through my mixed feelings towards being an immigrant and the sense of loss I experience living removed from Namibia and its communities. This work is a personal interpretation of my memories of Namibia, but it is also an idealised anticipation of Namibia becoming a just community in which elements such as respect, connectedness, sheltering, safeguarding, imperfection, difference and transparency are valued. These values are narrated through the application of design elements and the use of symbolism expressed through my application of materials and technique.

Ricoeur argues that narratives ‘recount care’ (Ricoeur 1992, p. 163). Through my weaves I show that narratives are a media in expressing care. Although my weaves predominantly express narratives of economic, cultural and social stratification, they also narrate notions of sheltering, reaching out and being connected to the other. I aim to transfer care across ‘natural’ and cultural ‘boundaries’ through the webs I wove. As stories nurture the connections between people and their cultures, my weaves are stories made of yarn, ropes and chain, connections that I created between my culture, experiences, sense of loss and those of marginalised Namibian communities living on the fringes of societies and cities.

‘Just Community’ is also a process of working through narratives of care towards myself. My processes of working through were possible due to the size of the weaves I worked with. The large weave required me to balance my weaving actions at a height of two meters, while it also cocooned me at a later stage when it became so large that weaving on the inside, thus being sheltered, proved to be more productive. Physical exhaustion and sensing my bodily limitations was countered by having more control over making the smaller weaves. The weaves offer means of coming to terms and coping with marginalities, be they personal or on a societal level.

My physical encounters with the materials lead to discovering their margins. My first weave was attempted four times, allowing me to discover the limitations and possibilities of the yarn. (Are margins not the spaces where individuals can discover their possibilities and limitations – when they are pushed to the fringes of their abilities, thoughts, emotions or realisms?) The margins I experienced through my weaving and the materials I chose allowed me to learn how to let go of existing, while embracing new ideas. The way I worked was experimental and improvisatory as I discovered what to do as I went along. The sensation of the stiff yet flexible flax yarn, cold metal, the smell of the fibres, metal, dust and tar, the fibres that floated in my coffee cup, were encounters that made me intimately familiar with the textilities of my weaves.

My intentions went beyond the aesthetic. I wanted to explore making through sensing and feeling new materials, approaches and techniques. My aim was to make; to work through a process of continuation and endurance in a limited time frame. Additionally, I wanted the materials to lead and show me the way, as they did. My processes were informed by Adamson (2007) and Sennet’s (2007) theories of sensing and exploring materialities without an overemphasis on skill overshadowing the process.

Improvising in the margin

‘Just Community’ is an improvised work. My positive attitudes towards improvisation stem from years of working in my studio – usually under pressure to meet deadlines. As a fashion designer I coordinated a fashion atelier and business for more than fifteen years, usually working under utmost strain, a lack of resources and unrealistic expectations of clients (Sarantou 2014). My design and making evolved towards the improvisory and experimental, allowing me freedom of creative expression.

Improvisory processes do not follow planned and ordered routes, but is often multidirectional and an ongoing process. The multidirectional dimensions of improvisation refer to a temporality which is not linear; as a result, improvisation cannot be planned – it happens in the moment and is realised in the present. My working process are determined by how the moment I worked in unfolded. To work unrestricted and free from preset expectations encouraged spontaneous action that did not depend on specific outcomes.

Apart from intuition, my improvisation responded to stimuli from my environment and circumstances (Montuori 2003; Peters 2009). There is a connection between improvisation and ‘the lived experience of complexity’ because both are ‘performative’, ‘subjective’ and thus driven by emotions and personal aesthetic (Montuori 2003, p. 238). Within improvisation’s particular temporal dimension, memories, intentions and intuition are combined (ibid.). In ‘Just Community’ I opened myself up to stimuli in my environment, the unforeseen and ambiguous situations I experienced while making my weaves. It allowed me to embrace uncertainty and find solutions to my design problems, as improvisation, or improvisus, refers to ‘the unforseen, the ambiguous or the uncertain’ (Nachmanovitch 1991, p. 240). Improvisation was an ‘ongoing process of learning and enquiry, learning-in-organising’, allowing me to find solutions to my design problems through learning and unlearning, motivating me to continue processes of discovery (Montuori 2003, p. 244).

The role of experience in improvisation illustrates a positive feedback loop; improvisation draws on a practitioner’s experience, simultaneously improvisation extends a practitioner’s experience. Faced with problems due to the flexibility of the flax ropes that formed the strata of the weaves, I used wooden dowels to support the structure. I never imagined that the ropes would cause me problems, but previous experiences lead me to find this solution as I was not ‘too attached to the outcome’ (Nachmanovitch, 1991, p. 19). Although improvisation is used as an approach to solve design problems, improvisation is often interpreted as on the spur of the moment. In reality, improvisation is a sober, pragmatic activity many designer-makers draw on to overcome limitations.

Improvisation has several temporal dimensions since it is also referred to as extemporisation, meaning ‘the time of inspiration’, ‘now’ and ‘from the time’ (a moment), thus coming about in moments that appear to be ‘outside of time’, sometimes fleeting or never ending (Nachmanovitch 2003, p. 18). I experienced improvisation to be unmeasurable moments in time during which it appeared as if I was making in moments ‘outside of time’. The pressing reality and economy of time was experienced in ‘Just Community’, as I had only two weeks to complete the work. The prerequisites for improvisation are not necessarily determined by ‘free play’ or a sense of playfulness (Nachmanovitch, 1991, p. 9), as improvisation is often part of working under pressure with a sense of seriousness because ‘it has to get done’ (Sarantou 2014, p. 238).

Improvisers have to ‘trust their own skills enough to take risks’ (Montuori 2003, p. 250). Elements of risk and openness to change is an essential ingredient for improvisation and working through artefact making processes (Adamson 2007). Improvisation also came about during reflection on my making, which resonates with Adamson’s (2007) ‘thinking through craft’. I embrace improvisory processes to think and feel through my making, use of skills and materials, while I’m also guided by my visual perceptions and critical analysis. Although improvisation is a significant ingredient of my making, it is often taken as something done in a ‘makeshift manner’, ‘making the best of things’, being ‘the next best thing’ or deviation from the original or best plan (Montuori 2003, p. 245). However, I do not perceive working in such a fashion as makeshift or a second best solution. This is what I do and ‘the way [I] work’ (Ingold & Hallam 2007 p. 12). I am guided by my intuition to recognise when something ‘works’. 


Improvisation is closely related to ‘the way [I] work’ instead of being moments or notions of play in artefact craft and design practices (Ingold & Hallam, 2007, p. 12). During complex moments of making I cope by journeying through different temporal and multidirectional processes, working my way through materialities while embracing risks. Improvisation was more often used during processes where pressures forced me to get done what I had to do to deliver outcomes on time.

Improvisory processes allow me to experiment during making moments, thereby seeking out and expressing my multiple identities through making. I also draw on improvisation to cope with my lived experiences of complex realities when I design and make (artefacts). The tensions I experienced while improvising and working through my weaves, as well as my thoughts and feelings about my life situation, reminded me of negotiating difficult circumstances in life when I encountered margins such as immigration and geographic isolation. In the margin is where I am most likely to improvise, guided by intuition, while working my way through life.

Due to the limitation of resources individuals in the margins are continuously improvising to meet their needs and solve their problems. Namibian artists, designers and craftspeople are unaware of the role of improvisation in their making practices, but more often than not they use improvisory processes to meet their needs and negotiate their way in the margins (Sarantou 2014).


Adamson, G 2007, Thinking through craft, Oxford and New York, Berg.

Ingold, T & Hallam, E 2007, ‘Creativity and cultural improvisation’, Creativity and cultural improvisation, eds Hallam & Ingold, Oxford and New York, Berg, pp. 1-24.

Montuori, A 2003, ‘The complexity of improvisation and the improvisation of complexity: Social science, art and creativity’, Human relations, Vol 56, No 2, pp. 237-255.

Nachmanovitch, S 1990, Free play: Improvisation in life and art, New York, United States, Penguin Putnam.

Peters, G 2009, The Philosophy of Improvisation, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Ricoeur, P 1992, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Sarantou, M A C 2014, Namibian narratives: Postcolonial craft and design identities, PhD thesis, unpublished.

Sennett, R 2007, The craftsman, New Haven and London, England, Yale University Press.


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