My city, my canvas

2013-05-29 10:36

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City dwellers are claiming back public space in innovative ways, breaking rules and new ground while they’re at it.

A growing band of citizens are changing the idea of what public art is, planting gardens in unexpected places and reclaiming no-go zones.

These ‘guerrilla attacks’ translate into smiley faces decorating traffic lights, once-off pavement banquets taking place under city bridges, surprise gardens on traffic islands, a concrete bed erected in a park and tired city walls transformed into anonymous murals that become must-sees.

As more citizens lose their patience with red tape, paper work and bureaucratic checkboxes, they’re deciding they don’t always need rubber stamps and forms filled out in triplicate to create a positive relationship with public spaces.

Snap, shutter, pop

The Joburg Photowalkers understand this well.

This group of camera enthusiasts breaks down boundaries and goes into neighbourhoods many wouldn’t visit with expensive equipment.

The internet-based group has few rules and a loose organisational structure. Members RSVP and pitch up or skip the event until the next one takes their fancy.

Mark Straw, an original Photowalker since 2009, says, ‘For me photography has been an incredible tool to bring people together and to explore public spaces in the safety of numbers.’

It changes perceptions that some places are ‘safe’ and others are ‘no-go’ zones.

Seeing things through different lenses and getting to know the people behind the pictures has meant Photowalkers can’t help being smitten with Joburg.

As Mark says, ‘I love seeing children playing on the streets in Hillbrow and Soweto. I have randomly walked around people’s homes and have always been warmly welcomed in.’

Greening the scene

Mavudo Chilongo is part of a community garden allotment in Observatory, Joburg.

The piece of land was a neglected bowling green before the ratepayers’ association leased the area from the council and put it in the hands of those who could coax spinach, cassava, pumpkins, amaranth and marrows from the ground, even if they’ve never had gardens of their own.

‘I grew up in the north of Malawi so growing food is natural to me,’ says Mavudo. ‘We are 28 members, we look after the land together and pay R1 a metre for water so we can grow whatever we want.’

The Observatory allotment has a neighbouring project run by Tony Lopes at the small Rhodes Park Library gardens in Kensington.

The garden was overgrown with weeds before Tony and library staff intervened in March 2009.

Tony says it’s about making the land productive again, especially when food security is a priority.

‘We use principles of permaculture so everything works together as best it can. We donate the produce that’s harvested to a children’s home,’ Tony says.

Mavudo says people share and swap seeds, knowledge and produce. They even share with the birds and insects. Examining a bird-pecked mielie cob, he says, ‘Ah, we don’t do anything about this; we have to give a share to the birds.’

Creating safe spaces

Working in a public space calls for a spirit of surrender.

Liliana Trans-plAnter is part of a gardening collective called Ambush. The group has created peace gardens in cracked pavements and informal dumpsites as far afield as Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal.

Sometimes the gardens are adopted and nurtured by the community, sometimes they are left to survive the whims of Mother Nature. Liliana, a qualified ethnobotanist, is unfazed.

‘For me it’s about the fact that there shouldn’t be any waste of land. Our gardens are about transformative performance. It’s about making people question their space and the relationships they have with the space,’ she says.

Liliana believes there shouldn’t be outsiders and insiders in any community. ‘We should feel free to go anywhere in our cities without fear.

By Ambush working in an area, we start to shift thinking and to break the bubbles we all sometimes operate in.’

Reinventing art

Artist Athi-Patra Ruga is often referred to as the man in heels and balloons. He takes his performances to the streets of downtown Joburg, Grahamstown and Cape Town – wherever the audience may be.

‘Walking your streets is the purest expression of freedom to me,’ he says. Much of his work interrogates issues of the body, politics and society’s rules of acceptability and taboo.

For Athi-Patra, the audience needs to be at the centre of the performance.

‘I insert myself into the landscape and interact with people and architecture to create a story.’

He adds that the idea of the audience is changing.

It’s no longer the person who walks through a gallery door or sits in a cushy theatre. There’s a new layer of participation that puts the public first.

Artist and art activist Lesley Perkes established The Troyeville Bedtime Story from the now famous concrete bed installed in the slither of greenery in a Troyeville park.

She and her collaborators, photographer Johannes Dreyer and artist Damien Grivas, created the bed in 2011.

It’s become a site of impromptu performance, storytelling, protest and playfulness.

Lesley believes in challenging the idea of art and closing the gap between what’s seen as high-end art and street art.

‘Real public art has always worked best without interference,’ she says.

‘It is about people’s joy of creating. It’s always had elements of rebellion; sometimes people also just want to let off steam.’

Lesley says people are tired of the neglect and disrespect of public spaces. While bureaucratic muscle becomes increasingly limp, citizens get stronger. And we all have a role to play. ‘We can all look after our front gardens and we can choose not to dump rubble and rubbish.’

In other words, we can have our city as a canvas, but only if we’re prepared to be its custodians too.

» Get your copy of iMag in City Press on Sundays.

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