Tokolos versus Cape Town

2014-11-30 14:00

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Anonymous graffiti activists Tokolos Stencils are waging a war against a city which, they say, only works for a few. Roger Young interviews them about their politics and the storm following their reversioning of the Mandela Ray-Ban sculpture

Cape Town’s street activists wage a nightly war against the city’s anti-graffiti laws and feel-good elite public art. Picture: Ngamanye Amaxesha

A stink in the gallery

“I understand their point, but must they really make the whole gallery stink of shit?” the middle-aged woman asks. It’s First Thursdays, Cape Town’s swanky middle class monthly art night, where all the hipsters and married Hons BA advertising types circle the city centre in search of culture, insight and free wine. At Brundyn+, a huge industrial white cube of a gallery on the edge of Bo-Kaap, an exhibition called Plakkies is taking place.

As part of the exhibition, Tokolos Stencils, a “loose collective”, have contributed a huge mural and spray-painted the phrase ‘Bourgeois Gallery’ on the outside of the building.

Brundyn+ released a statement condoning the action. Tokolos then brought a portable canister toilet into the gallery, filling the nostrils of the art cognoscenti with the smell of liquefied human waste.

In an interview with Tokolos via anonymous email, they respond: “It makes us smile, but also cry to hear such a myopic understanding of our act. We didn’t make it smell bad, we merely brought the smell to that space. Any black shackdweller would barely have noticed the smell. Why? Because they live with it each and every day of their lives. That smell is the smell of poverty and a middle class white lady could not begin to understand what it is like to live under such conditions?...?Our point was to make them feel how bad these conditions are. She felt it and she could not bear it. And neither could Brundyn+ as they immediately removed it from their space.”

But surely when the gallery condoned their graffiti, Tokolos had become part of the gallery system, muting their revolt? “We forced them to own up to the fact that they are a bourgeois exclusionary space?...?We knew it was a possibility that they would welcome it. This is why our final action was to bring something that they could not possibly welcome into their space – a dehumanised version of a toilet whose smell would make everyone there feel uncomfortable.”

Porta-portas delivered to a swanky art gallery

The spectacle spectacle

Tokolos have long been practising a form of public resistance art in Cape Town’s townships and city through stencils that implore us to Remember Marikana, banners that remind us This City Works Only for a Few and the Disown This Heritage slogans sprayed on colonial monuments. They are part of a rising wave of resistance art, one that shatters the notion that Cape Town city management apparently likes to present to tourists – that we are living in a happy, transformed rainbow nation.

Artist Michael Elion’s work called Perceiving Freedom, giant sunglasses erected as a memorial to Nelson Mandela facing Robben Island and co-financed by eyewear maker Ray-Ban, and Christopher Swift’s SunStar, the shining tetrahedron atop Signal Hill made from Robben Island fencing, are the city’s most visible new public art projects. Both were made by white men, were funded by corporate money and espouse a notion that the dream is realised.

During a radio interview about the flawed process around Elion’s sunglasses, DA ward councillor Beverley Schafer was asked if any black artists had been selected to do that kind of work. Her response was: “Why on earth are we putting race into art?…?why should it not just be public art?”

It is a response so out of touch, so insulting to those artists in Cape Town who, through lack of access to the resources that the elite enjoy, are unable to submit work into the public art programmes, that one can only marvel at how many levels of protective untouchability Schafer’s white privilege confers on her.

Tokolos stepped into this fray when they defaced Elion’s glasses with the words We Broke Your Hearts, a reference to his previous project, an onslaught of vinyl heart-shaped stickers stuck onto public and private property everywhere, in clear violation of Cape Town’s vandalism laws that graffiti artists fall foul of daily. Elion, even though he claimed responsibility for the stickers, has not been charged.

Tokolos also stencilled their image of Mambush, Marikana’s man in the green blanket, on the lenses. Elion, for all his talk of starting a conversation about “perceiving freedom” was quick to erase the voice speaking back to him.

Last week, art critic Mary Corrigall wrote of Tokolos: “Though graffiti has lost its subversive character?...?they believe it plays a significant role in fighting for social justice?...?They arrogantly or patronisingly presume that this act worked at unifying the community.”

When asked, the activists respond: “We can’t bother with all these elite art critics. Why don’t people talk more about the issues we raise rather than making it into a mental masturbation?”

When I raise the notion that they too are brand-building, they say that “the concept of a brand is related to the buying and selling of a product. Nothing of ours is sold. This is in complete contrast to Elion’s work, which is all about its corporate value. Our work and his work are of competing ideologies...”

It’s obvious that Tokolos are after attention – this is the point that people like Corrigall miss. “We hope that this new-found publicity and over-the-top hype will help us publicise the much more important struggles of poor blacks,” they tell me.

‘We don’t want to become the next Banksy’

Who Tokolos are seems beside the point, and I never bother to examine this in any depth.

“By remaining anonymous, we are able to?...?rather put forward a more universalised image of the worker, the poor black shackdweller, the homeless person who comes back to her belongings under a bridge to find them confiscated by the CID [City Improvement District]. It prevents us from benefiting financially or career wise from our actions. We don’t want to become the next Banksy. Most importantly, staying anonymous allows anyone and everyone to be a tokolos if he or she wants. Participation in our collective is merely based on going out there and doing a progressive political stencil.”

Advertising as vandalism

“Those who would call it vandalism are stuck in a strange idealistic bubble that is blind to the hierarchies of public space. We have billboards and advertisements that invade out public space. We are forced to look at Johnnie Walker ads even though we as the public never gave them permission to put that shit up?...?In a system in which we, as the people, have no right to creatively participate in public space, it cannot be seen as vandalism to reoccupy that space. This is what art should do – break down barriers. Money should not dictate the right to mould our city.”

And Tokolos don’t even consider themselves to be artists: “Art is merely the expression of our activism.”

After their Disown This Heritage action on monuments, like with the glasses, the slogans were cleaned up fairly quickly, even though it took the city up to a day to notice most.

“There is one statue, on the Grand Parade, which has had our Remember Marikana up for almost a month now?...?This shows us that certain spaces are more important than others. The city doesn’t care about the statue on the Parade because it’s a space of the poor and working class. But Church Square is a bourgeois space and they can’t allow us to ruin it for the privileged?...?Some of our stencils in Khayelitsha and Langa have been up for more than a year.”

Tokolos sprayed this message on a statue of Paul Kruger

How to disown a heritage

Disowning a heritage seems like a hard thing to do, I say. How do we disown something that we have no control over?

“Your I Benefited From Apartheid T-shirts express exactly this owning up to a white’s fucked up heritage,” they respond. “We were [also] calling on blacks to disown that heritage. Statues of evil old white men are not the heritage of black South Africans. Black South Africans have a different heritage based on a struggle against those in the statues and it is criminal for black South Africans to continue to allow for whites to dictate their heritage.

“We are not calling for anyone to forget or rewrite history. That is in fact what the craze around Mandela statues does. Nor are we necessarily saying that the statues should be taken down. But if they are not taken down, they should clearly express outrage rather than respect for white supremacy. They should be reworked to remind us of who is an oppressor rather than pretend that such an oppressor doesn’t exist. But no government will support a memorial that also speaks to current forms of oppression.”

But isn’t stencilling an outmoded form of resistance? “Our Mambush stencil has become immediately recognisable to much of the population. There is a community of shackdwellers in Philippi called Marikana. They have also appropriated the Remember Marikana slogan as part of their struggle. They hold up signs with those words and write [them] on their T-shirts when they go to protests?...?But we don’t feel stencils are enough.

“Change won’t come from our stencils. But the stencils can be part of a process of rebuilding our culture of resistance, which in many ways has been in hibernation since 1994.”

Beneath the star

At the press launch for the SunStar on Signal Hill, mayor Patricia de Lille proclaimed: “Allow people the freedom of expression, to express the way they feel in any form of art or wisdom.”

Just below Signal Hill, the Bo-Kaap Civic Association, which had filed objections against Swift’s light sculpture, feel disregarded by the process. But the people there are too busy dealing with a new wave of lease cancelling, potentially facing another wave of corporate exploitation of the land they have lived on for generations. The SunStar is a shining beacon of faux positivity in a city where management puts rocks on public fields to prevent soccer games, where mere kilometres away, people live in medieval conditions.

Public art, in this context, could have another purpose. It could speak back to the poor, acknowledge their existence and their struggles, but instead it only reminds citizens that they are invisible. Under these conditions, so-called vandalism is the only option if you ask Tokolos.

The only saving grace of Swift’s sculpture is that it was not paid for by the city. Southern Sun would have done better to have donated the money it spent on the project by choosing an area in Cape Town to electrify. Swift’s light bulbs, after he has finished with them, will go to “help the poor” – after he has blown R2 million on an overgrown Christmas trinket for tourists, an objet d’art whose only meaning is to remind us of his privilege.

Until the last can of paint

Boitumelo Ramahlele has been instrumental in engaging with Tokolos about stencilling, about connecting them with various communities and with discussions around sloganeering and its effects. I ask if Tokolos’ work has any effect. Does it, to paraphrase Corrigall, work at unifying the community?

Ramahlele doesn’t hesitate. “The slogan This City Works for a Few that was hung on the bridge? When you pass under in a taxi, the conversation changes. People begin to talk about their dissatisfaction?...?We expect a lot from our government?...?We on the ground are telling them what they should be doing, and we are doing this through stencils and slogans...”

I ask him about the toilets where he lives. “We dig our own long drops. Those that can’t afford to dig long drops, they shit in buckets.”

I interject. The bucket system?

“System? There is no system. People who shit in buckets have to walk to empty them in the veld, which is dangerous. Some people relieve themselves between shacks. There is no system whatsoever, no sanitation, no garbage collection, no electricity, nothing. We are 20km outside Cape Town and we might as well be in the desert.” Ramahlele pauses, and then says: “We will stencil until the very last can of paint.”

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