Powered by a new found enthusiasm from cultural institutions, artists in Cape Town are stepping out of exclusive museums and exhibits to make public art for the masses in trains, streets and shops. Cape Town’s artists are reclaiming public space. Ahead of two upcoming festivals, Live Art and Infecting the City, Valerie Geselev explores this phenomenon.
Company Gardens is usually a fairly boring place; with imported green vegetation and colonial architecture that disturbs more than it impresses. It is a place mainly populated by tourists, rushing commuters and street residents, representing an interesting microcosm of Cape Town’s dynamics, where so many groups share the same public space but rarely engage with each other.
But on 6 June 2016, things went a little differently. Despite the fact that it was a public holiday, Youth Day, I was on my way to work, passing Company Gardens as part of my regular commute. A small crowd was gathered around a white podium opposite the statue of Jan Smuts, a pre-apartheid era prime minister.
After a few minutes a young woman stepped on top of the podium, wearing a dramatic black gown, a bra top and a white skirt. Her face was covered with black chiffon fabric, falling from a black hat. She picked up a long stick and placed it along her shoulders – positioning herself like Jesus bearing the cross. From the stick, on both of her sides, hung long white cloths with printed text:
“As adopted at the Congress of the People, Kliptown, on 26 June 1955 We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: That South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white… ” For the next hour she stood still there, despite the wild Cape Town wind. Passers-by slowed down their pace, some stood and tried to figure out what was going on. A small group of curious tourists stopped by.
The strips of cloth landed in two metal basins, full with red wine which slowly crawled up, staining the text with blood-like shades.
I overheard a tour guide explain to his foreign clients that the text was the Freedom Charter, written as a vision for racially free South Africa. He went on to describe the current political climate, where “many people feel that we haven’t achieved those things, like ‘people shall share in the country’s wealth’”. They were joined by a group of children, a few young families, and later, more tourists.
Some passers-by picked up the implied invitation to write on the empty podium. “Not yet Uhuru”; “lest we forget”; “for every generation there is a revolution”; and “the best is yet to come. We all love you, Mexican girl”, they put. A middle-aged man went into a long monologue interpretation of the happening – connecting
the performer’s “indecent” outfit with Christianity and blaming female promiscuity as the cause of South Africa’s unemployment rate.
Those were diverse, interesting and relevant conversations that are seldom heard in Company Gardens, or in any other public space of Cape Town. The silent performance served as a conversation starter, triggering the public to speak about issues which they would not engage with on any other day, with people who they would not usually talk to.
At 1pm, after almost two hours of endurance, she stepped down and packed up to go: unlike her, the old-school statue of South Africa’s late Prime Minister, who promoted racial segregation in the decades prior to the writing of the Freedom Charter, remained. Sethembile Msezane didn’t introduce herself to the crowd – her audience. If she did, they would have learned that she is a Masters of Fine Art student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and that her main project is staging live public statues with her body, as a way of commenting on the lack of black and female figures in the local streets.
What Msezane did that day is emblematic of a new wave of artistic practice in Cape Town; an intervention in contemporary art vocabulary. The idea is that no one gets invited, no posters or Facebook events distributed – if you encounter it consider yourself lucky.
In the small crowd around the podium I recognised Riason Naidoo, the former director of the National Gallery. Riason curated Msezane’s performance as part of the “Any Given Sunday” series, an international project that uses socially engaged art to “reflect on the social, economic and political tensions of the city set against its histories and relevant sites”.
Naidoo refused to tell me where and when the next intervention in the series will take place. He insisted that it is part of the spontaneous charm and philosophy of the project. What kind of art does not want to invite an audience to come specially and see it? The kind of art that decides to come towards its audience, uninvited, “occurring as if randomly”.
Behind us in the background was the building of the Iziko National Gallery. The gallery offered free entrance that day. In the first hall was The Art of Disruptions, a new exhibition which featured a photograph of Msezane’s iconic performance The Day Rhodes Fell at the UCT campus in April 2015.
The concept behind the exhibition was to “showcase artists who actively ‘break apart’, challenge and complicate the traditional boundaries and hierarchies of culture and society”. The gallery was almost empty, as it usually is, with just a couple of tourists wandering around the cold exhibition halls.
The emptiness of the gallery stood in contrast to the crowd outside, witnessing Msezane’s work live; but Iziko is not special. An empty gallery, even on a free entrance day, is typical in South Africa: they have very few followers.
Most of the exhibitions, particularly in Cape Town, are visited by a small group of artists and their friends. After decades of living under oppressive cultural policies, the majority of non-white South Africans tend to stay away from museums.
Experts will tell you that art museums are viewed as a colonial legacy and Eurocentric concept. Beside, the apartheid geography of townships turns a visit to the gallery into an expensive and time- consuming mission. So, instead of investing efforts in trying to make the public come to the galleries, local artists have started taking their work to the places where the public is already present.
Over the last five years, art interventions have taken place on public transport, in open squares, alleyways, in shops and in the public library. Without tickets, venue hire or invitations, artists intervene in existing public spaces, like the priest in the third-class train carriage delivering the gospel.
The emerging poet Koleka Putuma took her performance from the Artscape stage to Metrorail commuters on the train to Muizenberg. Putuma presented the public with her beautifully written, cynical, sharp and critical poem “Collective Amnesia” – reflecting on current affairs, threading together the TRC with xenophobia, teargas and tipping the waiter:
“My ancestors owned the land before colonisation, whose statues I do not see erected here in stone, but they live forever in our hearts, in our bones, the same way yours live in our textbooks”.
A similar intervention was performed on the train to Stellenbosch. This time the audience got a long and diverse line-up of performers, titled ‘Manufractured’, accompanied by visual art which could have been seen from the windows, wheat-pasted along the railway, from Burning Museum collective. The poems were highly relevant to their public space. “Take that train from Mitchell’s Plain, go straight to work, do your job, and tomorrow you come back again. And ignore society’s pain, you just focus on financial gain. Awe?” preached Rimestein.
“Artists who have something urgent to say prefer to take their statements to open spaces, with no censors and plenty of ears.”
Though most of Cape Town’s public art interventions take place in the city centre, innovative creatives from the surrounding townships are also using public spaces to bring creative production to their communities. One notable example is the Grand Blaque collective of five young designers, who curated pop-up exhibitions of their works in a restaurant in Khayelitsha.
Artists who go looking for their audience in public spaces are not only doing it in the streets. The People’s Education collective took their work to local hair salons; Vanessa Lipari performed “The Prophet” among the books shelves of the Central Library; curator Pamella Dlungwana occupied vacant retail shops with pop-up exhibitions under the title “To Let”; award-winning “fine artists”, like Kemang Wa Lehulere, Haroon Gunn Salie and Khanyisile Mbongwa, have been passionately expanding their practice to public interventions. “Any Given Sunday” staged seven interventions in Khayelitsha, Sea Point, Bo Kaap and Langa during 2016, and it is not alone in its approach.
It’s not that the practice is new – in 2009 the publishing outfit Chimurenga activated the Central Library with interventions, for example – but it is intensifying and becoming increasingly popular.
Is the motivation for the artists to activate the city’s public spaces against its capitalist logic? The young artists behind these interventions are hungry for conversations; old-school art institutions are still filtering out certain themes – mainly about black pain and critical works on white supremacy, so the artists who have something urgent to say prefer to take their statements to open spaces, with no censors and plenty of ears.
Justin Davy of Burning Museum collective puts it this way: “The museums are inherently part of the colonial project, the idea of colonialism as a system of control. I don’t think that museums are designed to continue answering the questions of the contemporary time. If you look at the model of museums in South Africa, they are essentially colonial. By and large, their collections, architecture and even the ethos are all still colonial.”
Officially, and intellectually in the last decade, Cape Town has positioned itself as an African interventions capital. In 2013, The institutional embrace of public art was sealed when the City of Cape Town launched its Public Art Management Framework. So far this municipal initiative is focused more on the conservative beautification aspects of public art, and less on its potential as a trigger for critical conversations.
Across the city, large-scale creative interventions have sprung up, including “Infecting the City”, an annual public art festival. The 2017 edition will take place in March, with the purpose of “providing an unusual opportunity for visual art, music, dance and performance to leave the confines of theatres and galleries to engage with or disrupt Cape Town’s daily movements”.
Prior to that, on 10–25 February, more than thirty artists are scheduled to “disrupt spaces across Cape Town” as part of ICA Live Art Festival.
As much as this growing trend democratisises art practice, it also raises ethical and legal concerns. Critics question the imposition of content on people in situations where they can’t choose to walk away. Those interventions also present a challenge to the regulators of public spaces, when artists choose to claim their right to freedom of expression by not asking for prior permission. Justin Davy of Burning Museum collective asserts: “We consider ourselves to be quite independent in that we don’t ask for permission from people to do our work. The issue of authorisation is related to the fact that we [are] often transgressing bylaws of the public space.”
The recent calls for decolonisation by South Africa’s students add another layer of relevance to the rise of public art in Cape Town. Art historians who are interested in pre-colonial practices often talk about the fact that there was no word for art in the traditional African societies.
Art was part of everyday life, not a separate practice for aesthetic pleasure. Masks, songs and poems had practical purposes. In that line, there was no special place for art – like the Western museums or theatres – as art was happening wherever it was needed. So perhaps the current relocation of creative production from galleries to public spaces is a renaissance of the indigenous African approach to art – art as an integral part of everyday life, based in the spaces it occupies.