Stop killing our street art!

2011-10-26 00:00

IT was a heartbreaking newspaper story that drew my attention to this topic.

Apparently, some homeless folk in Sea Point had used their free time to create a small space, decorated with plants and various objects, at Sunset Beach. In time, this little enclave became known as The Garden of Hope.

Until, one day, it was destroyed by vandals.

One’s first reaction, at hearing this, would be: “It’s probably the same vandals who destroyed and damaged some of those pretty sculptures on the Promenade.”

Alas, if only matters were that simple. According to some information I found on The Big Issue’s website, The Garden of Hope was destroyed by a gang of no fewer than 10 Cape Town law-enforcement officers (yes, it took that many of them to focus on this single task), who maintained that “the action was necessary” and that “countless attempts to get the homeless off the streets of Sea Point have been unsuccessful”.

All this goes to show that not all people view art in the the same way.

The treasure house

Take me, for instance. I don’t really like poetry (with the exception of the really world-class poets such as Breyten Breytenbach, Pablo Neruda and Johann de Lange). The alarm bells in my mind go off every time someone sends me an e-mail asking me to “have a look” at his or her amateur verse. Until recently, I associated the genre of poetry with people who eat too many lentils, who wear smelly socks and who live alone in dark little rooms in cheap hostels, constantly feeling sorry for themselves and thinking about all the injustices done to them by society.

This stupid prejudice evaporated (temporarily, at least) one wonderful day, towards the end of last summer, when I took my kids for an outing to the Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town.

Bored with baby-sitting, I left the kids with my wife and started exploring the gardens on my own, and discovered a treasure house of art.

In a cleverly designed enclave filled with intriguing modern sculptures and printed paragraphs of prose and poetry, I was struck by a plaque bearing these words:

“No one holds the measure

Of their own undoing … no one

The meaning of their dying

Hold what lives

Behind the masks

Of your own making …

The music of your wild name.”

There were many more snatches of poetry like this. All of them were written by a poet I had never heard of, Ian McCallum. Although I did not fully understand all the stuff he’d written, the juxtaposition of the poetry with the strange-looking sculptures and eccentric architecture had a profound impact on me.

Undiscovered space

When, later that same day, we extended our outing to include a walk on the Sea Point promenade to buy the kids some ice cream, I saw Marieke Prinsloo Rowe’s sculptures for the first time. They fitted in beautifully with the lovely poetry I had read in the Kirstenbosch Gardens. By the time we returned home, the rush-hour traffic didn’t bother me. I felt invigorated, as if I had been reborn.

Is this not the purpose of all street art? To surprise people, to uplift them, to remind them of a world of magic and wonder lurking just behind the ordinary, the every day? And if street art manages to do just that, should we really waste our time arguing the merits of it? Shouldn’t we just leave it there, to exist in its own right, to extend its quiet influence on passers-by? Do we have to try to label it, or stick an “ism” to it?

The strange cloth-covered trees and sculpted wild animals in Stellenbosch, cleverly done by artist Strijdom van der Merwe and sculptor Dylan Lewis, spring to mind. When I look at Van der Merwe’s stuff critically, I usually draw a blank. It’s meaningless, weird, and I don’t get it. But when I switch off my mind and just feel the atmosphere of his creations, it has the same effect as those beautiful creations in Kirstenbosch and Sea Point. They make me feel more human, they inspire me just as much as the weird and wonderful semi-mythical figures of the Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda. I used to spend hours in that small Karoo garden, just feeling serene and in touch with an undiscovered space deep inside me.

Whether we agree about the merits of this kind of thing, the bottom line is that street art is a part of our shared humanity. If we do not grant one another the ability and the freedom to share and admire and live and breathe among these objects, we, as a collective organism, could very well run into danger of losing our very soul.

Piss off, you vandals. —

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