Review – The pavement as laboratory

2012-07-04 16:27

“A story is not a car,” wrote Ben Okri. “A story is a road. And before that it was a river, a river that never ends.”

The quote resonates in my mind at the end of one of my favourite Grahamstown experiences this week.

The story of this colonially constructed, apartheid-entrenched town is no different to the story of any other South African settlement.

There are two Grahamstowns – the town and the township. The road that links them is bridged by a river.

The natural history of the place and its constructed history – and the conflict between them and their black and white divides are what artist Doung Anwar Jahangeer defines and then breaks down in his walkabout, The Other Side.

A group of white folk meet Jahangeer, dressed in lurid orange worker’s overalls, at the colonial arch at the heart of town. As if on cue the weather has turned blustery and drops of rain start to fall, ruffling hairstyles and challenging our warm, comfortable clothing.

A frustrated architecture student turned professional walker and philosopher of the streets, Jahangeer advises us, as white people, to think like tourists in our country. Once we have achieved that we will be able to learn to assimilate.

He launches into his personal history, warning that he talks a lot and he’s sorry, but he can’t change that.

His lesson in the theory of architecture without walls is, we will find out, a practical experiment in the art of seeing the world differently – with the pavement as his laboratory.

He asks us to consider the detached town planning that created these streets and walls and their architecture of power and fear.

The pavements in town are spacious, but under attack from nature. He points to cracks offering space for grass to grow.

He looks up at ferns using the gutters to thrive.

He discusses the veranda as a space in between the public and private. He asks us to enjoy the graffiti as a plea for recognition and a play of creativity.

Man, of course, is nature and the walk leads us into a contemplation of urbanisation.

The rural may be eaten up by the city – but is it not also the rural that is claiming the urban as people migrate? The shortcuts tramped into the grass verges talk of country paths.

To Jahangeer a paint spill is a Jackson Pollock and a barbershop painting a Marc Chagall. Things get interesting as we approach the township and informal trade crowds the pavement.

We are asked to consider the construction of African cities as marketplaces and trade as relationships, not just commerce.

The pavement is a place where we advertise art and abortions, where people sleep and eat. They are another natural force that fights for control of this town.

As we reach the river that borders the township, we stand on the bridge and the sun comes out. Behind us the fort on the hill stares without blinking. Ahead of us, people live their natural lives.

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