Who owns the sky?

2013-02-10 10:00

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A public space activist is on a mission to reinvent the Hillbrow tower - and will soon be pitching her dream at the world’s most important creative conference. Charl Blignaut reports.

Lesley Perkes does nothing in half measures.

When the photographer asks her to jump from a car bonnet into the air for a shot in front of the Hillbrow Tower, she turns it into a street game.

She yells, “one, two, three, Hillbrow!” before she leaps. People stop and stare.

She calls out to them. People come out onto their balconies.

Delighted children draw closer.

Soon the whole street is smiling at the crazy white lady.

The 51-year-old public art guru delights in using the city as a playground – and art as a way of changing people’s perspectives about their environment.

Her company, artatwork, has been the organising force behind mobile phone operator Cell C’s building-sized inner city murals; Mary Sibande’s enormous art billboards of a glamorous domestic worker called Sophie; 30 heritage sculptures across the nation; and a field of flowering yellow hands at Johannesburg’s notorious Gillooly’s interchange.

Most recently, Perkes commissioned a concrete sculpture of a double bed with concrete pillows and duvet outside her Troyeville home.

Lights were strung in the trees and the community congregates there.

“Families come down for an outing at night. Lovers come here to kiss. Kids come here to read comics,” she says.

Now Perkes wants to reinvent the most iconic building on the Joburg skyline – the Hillbrow tower (officially known as the Telkom Joburg Tower).

Not only is the Johannesburg Development Agency buying in to her plan, she has just cracked the nod to present the plan at TED2013 in California in the US.

Perkes will join one of the most prestigious line-ups on the planet for a session titled Disrupt!, which promotes creative interference for social good.

“My audition for TED was framed by what the Hillbrow tower could look like if we imagined it differently than what it is – a phallic, macho, apartheid structure imposed on the city.

“Like the bed in Troyeville, this is about involving the entire community to create a space they can have fun in. Neighbourhoods are not buildings, they are people, kindred spirits.”

We visit the base of the 269m telecommunications transmission tower, the tallest in Africa.

It was completed in 1971 and named the JG Strijdom Post Office Tower after the then minister of telecommunications, who would go on to be prime minister.

“A friend of mine was a little boy watching it go up from a nearby flat,” says Perkes.

“He told me he watched it steal his sky.”

When it was opened to the public, black South Africans were not allowed to pay their 20 cents and go up to observe the views or eat in the revolving restaurant.

By 1981, white South Africans weren’t either.

During the state of emergency, it was declared a national key point and closed to the public.

Now Perkes wants to approach telecommunications giant Telkom and see if she can get it opened again.

But that’s just a small part of the plan.

Leaning against the tower’s huge front wall, framed by adverts for penis enlargements, abortions and prophets, Perkes shares her vision.

“I want the tower to be a canvas,” she says. She is proposing public and professional competitions to turn the tower into art – using building wraps or massive light installations.

“So people will let us know what they want their sky to look like. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that we own our public space and we are allowed to play with it.”

She wants to see the wall turned into a street art gallery and she also envisions new paving, street furniture and lights, with stands selling merchandise – like at the Eiffel Tower on the Champ de Mars in Paris, France.

And she sees this stretching across a broad precinct all the way to Joubert Park and the Constitutional Court.

Discussions with the Johannesburg Development Agency are already at an advanced stage.

“I’ve been working on this for 20 years – and I’m not the only one to propose reinventing the tower – but it’s the first time I’ve felt the project has traction,” she says.

“We can’t afford to build new buildings, so we should be reinventing the ones we have.”

She adds: “I’m speaking about the power of the imagination to change the atmosphere.

“A structure like this affects the whole city’s psyche. We so often feel lost and powerless. We need something to look up to and delight in.”

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