September 25, 2018
Far Flung
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Namibia
An Arts Oasis in Big Game Country

How did a village in Africa develop wineries, sachertorte, and an annual May arts festival that attracts visitors from around the world?

How does a mere wide spot in the road in the middle of southern Africa become an arts colony, and draw artists and visitors from around the world? Omaruru, Namibia, which in the local Herero language means “this is the place where the grass makes the cows’ milk sour,” has morphed into a creative center and a hotspot for both locals and tourists.

When we drove through this sleepy little settlement on the Omaruru River in the 1990s, it was mainly a pleasant place to stop for gas on the way to somewhere else. Used as a base by big game hunters in the mid 1800s, by the end of the 19th century German colonists had settled beside the Herero and Damara peoples in what was then called Sud West Afrika. A Rhenish Mission was built, then a brewery, and by beginning of the 20th century Roman Catholic and Anglican churches joined the Lutherans. A few artists found their way here, among them a man called “Lone Oak,” who lived under a camelthorn tree with his dog and goat, and painted religious murals on the walls of St. Boniface church.

By 2009, Omaruru was a different story. Almost 20 years after Namibian independence, this town of about 6,000 has become a kind of Ojai, California, drawing artists looking for a creative environment and a laid back lifestyle. Many of the original German buildings have been preserved, and turned into arts co-ops, restaurants, boutiques and studios. (Omaruru was also called Okozondje, the place of scorpions; fortunately, the only scorpions we saw were handcrafted from wrought iron.)

The artists here are both native and adoptive Namibians: Bushmen, Germans, South Africans, OvaHerero, Americans, French, NamaDamara, and Ovambo. They know a bit about mysticism beyond the traditions of their own tribes — the cover of the local arts guide, The Om Eye, features in its masthead the ancient Egyptian Eye of Horus, symbol of power and protection, while the free newspaper, The Om, celebrates the Hindu symbol for the absolute.

We had already decided that meditating on the shaded banks of the Omaruru river might be an inspiring thing to do, but were sidetracked by a visit to the Kristall Kellerei winery, where we concentrated on the Nappa — Namibian grappa — instead. Though we didn’t reach nirvana, we were pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the wines.

Then we followed the art. We started at Wronsky House, built in 1907 as a shop, and still a souvenir and bookstore today. In fact, the coffee shop still serves a sachertorte passed down by a family member who married into the notable Viennese family that invented it in the 19th century.  We picked up the latest edition of The Om Eye, as well as the Omaruru Arts and Crafts Guide, which lists almost four dozen local artists who specialize in photography, embroidery, quilting, paintings and weavings; items made from recycled car parts; sculpture carved from ancient tree roots; intricate traditional woven baskets; and jewelry created from handmade ostrich shell beads. Plus bread baking, wine making and handmade chocolates.

We dropped in and out of shops and studios at Lalabaai, where we met owner and artist Lizanne Kruger, and bought her handmade angel, Mina Afrika. After lunch at the colorful and funky Sand Dragon, where they have a real espresso machine, we moved on to the Kashana Center. Hanne Marott Alpers’ Nawa Nawa Art Gallery specializes in work made of both recycled and natural materials - unusual sculptures made from discarded Land Rover parts, and paintings, Bushman baskets, photography, handmade jewelry. The Desert Rose in the Kashana center sells homemade cheeses, oryx ham, and the luscious Dorgeloh Chocolates, all of which went into our 4×4’s fridge for a picnic down the road. Everywhere we turned there were huge wooden sculptures fashioned from tree roots, and metal wall sculptures made by Michael van de Merwe.

With such a well-developed arts community, it follows that Omaruru has a popular annual Artists’ Trail event. Every year, over the third weekend of May, open studios and outdoor exhibits draw visitors from around southern Africa and beyond.

Editors’ note: In 2010, the Artists Trail is scheduled for May 14 and 15. Read more about life in Omaruru in the local newsletter, The Om Times.

Umbria, Italy-based writer Sharri Whiting lived for four years in Namibia. She now blogs about life in central italy, at Umbria Bella, and runs a summer communications course for Boston graduate students.

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