Public art in a LAND divided

Oh, Cape Town, how I love you. Let me count the ways. Your rolling waves. Your crisp sea winds. Your floral kingdom. Your particular brand of systemic, institutionalised racism that dictates how we traverse our public spaces. And did I mention we have a mountain? Take that, Joburg.

This hasn’t been a great year for Cape Town in the popular press. First, there were software developer Adrian Frith’s delicately pointillist maps of South African city spaces that quickly went viral on the social media circuit. Each map combined 2011 population census data with geographic locations in an attempt to plot racial distribution in South Africa twenty years after the end of Apartheid. Cape Town as a whole- with some minor suburban exceptions like Woodstock and Pinelands- emerged as a profoundly segregated urban environment, its socio-economic landscape an extension of a now-defunct political agenda. Then there was writer Lwandile Ncokazi challenge to Cape Town’s letting policies conducted on the online marketplace Gumtree. For two months he tried to secure a holiday rental in the city bowl, only succeeding in garnering any kind of response when he changed his name to ‘Andy’.

2012 wasn’t a great year either, come to think of it. There was that fateful New York Times article (titled, if I recall correctly, something suitably dramatic like “In a Divided City, Many Blacks See Echoes of White Superiority”) that caused such a terrible fuss. And let’s not forget that the year was broken in by Helen Zille’s twitter spat with Simphiwe Dana, born out of Lindiwe Suttle’s comment: “No matter how famous/rich u r, ur still a 2nd class citizen if ur Black in Cape Town.” No-one came out of that looking good, Cape Town included.

It’s against this charged backdrop that the Gordon Institute of Performing Arts’ (GIPCA’s) interdisciplinary event LAND located itself for one brief, hot weekend in late November. Given that 2013 marks the centenary of the 1913 Land Act – that oppressive piece of colonial legislature that set a precedent for subsequent forced removals – LAND was a well-timed endeavour. It wasn’t the only one of its kind, either. The African Centre for Cities ‘Beyond High Walls and Broken Windows’, Future Cape Town’s ‘Bold Cape Town’ and the ‘Land Divided 2013’ conferences each saw the significance of this centennial marker as an opportunity to spark new conversations about transformation, space and futurity. So in Cape Town’s defence, we may have more than our fair share of embedded racist narratives, but at least we’re addressing them with renewed vigour.

Unlike these parallel projects, though, LAND demonstrated a unique approach to the tense material in question. It provided a forum for artists, filmmakers, musicians and academics to actively engage with the marginalization of Cape Town’s inhabitants both historically and today. Rather than just holding discussions and relying on inherently abstract theoretical frameworks, LAND found new ways of navigating the terrain that ran the gambit from opera to gardening. Equally as important, the event series was open to all interested parties. That made me very happy, personally.  I’m a strong believer in the fact that there isn’t enough art in the public eye in this country.

Among the participating artists, Haroon Gunn-Salie’s site-specific Witness takes the notion of the public eye to a whole new level. Witness play with the homonymic relationship between site and sight in an ongoing engagement with how space is read. The project which began in 2011 sees Gunn-Salie working collaboratively with the District Six museum to interrogate the history of forced removals and land restitution in Cape Town. This particular manifestation occupies a home in Chapel street, reinserting itself into the very socially and politically resonant environment that it seeks to make visible.

The exhibition Terminal, curated by Jean Brundrit, Adrienne van Eeden and Svea Josephy, articulates a very different experience of art in Cape Town’s public spaces. Taking the form of a series of A1 posters on street poles, the show presents a challenge to the perceived elitism of the traditional art gallery. Springing up practically overnight on select streets in the CBD, each photograph (extracted from larger bodies of work by a diverse range of photographers) represents a ‘window’ into life in the city; a single moment of space transfixed in time. The end result is quirky and cool, as evidenced by the fact that within a few days many of the posters had been discreetly vanished by passers-by who took a liking to them. Can an exhibition be considered a success if the art is worth pinching? I certainly think so.

That said, the show did sacrifice some of the conceptual weight of individual pieces in favour of contextual effect.  Ashley Walters’ Dark City, say, or David Southwood’s Beach Boys: Tanzanian Stowaways, are bodies of work best read as a whole. And, perhaps more significantly, they are bodies of work that belong to specific sites. Walters’ interest in the Cape Flats suburb of Uitsig or Southwood’s study of migrants in Johannesburg seem a little out of place in the bustle of central Cape Town. Why this part of the city? Why these street poles, so often burdened by adverts for theatre productions and art exhibitions, rather than other road sides outside of the city’s cultural centre? Yes, Terminal brings art into the public arena with inarguably good intentions, but it still speaks to a very particular public, conforming to some of the very aesthetic norms that it aims to subvert.

This central city specificity holds true for much of LAND. In a way it seems unfair to hold the event culpable for that: the CBD is, after all, both historically important and an area that guarantees an art-going audience.  It is too easy to forget, though, when you’re lulled by the comfort of the busy CBD, that most of Cape Town’s 4-odd million inhabitants live outside of the city itself. And indeed, do so because of the very colonial land-ownership legislature that LAND is hoping to interrogate. It might have been nice to push that envelope, to bring art into alternative spaces that would grant it a wholly new significance. Room for improvement there, perhaps.

There were exceptions. I’d have liked to see more pieces like the African Centre for City’s Land and Erasure, which included a walking tour of Bonteheuwel focusing on the social legacies of the Group Areas Act. Those who are privileged enough to live in the city so very rarely see the flip side of Cape Town’s coin, and maybe it’s art’s responsibility to turn that on its head…to acknowledge the social, economic and geographic discrepancies that shape our lived realities.

So yes, Cape Town has its challenges. And yes, it is important that they are addressed, particular with the kind of rigour offered in LAND’s broad range of responses. Our best shot at deeper and broad-based transformation arises from a willingness to acknowledge its lack. Don’t get me wrong: that’s true for the rest of South Africa too.

But at least we’ve got a mountain.

Written by Anna Stielau for a now-defunct section of Platform called ‘Creation’.

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