Analysis | Spatial apartheid: Public art in South Africa and the politics of space

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The Ray-Bans created by Michael Elion were defaced, in protest, by guerrilla graffiti artist group Tokolos Stencil Collective with words such as Remember Marikana and We broke your hearts. Tokolos Stencil Collective is an anonymous group of stencil and graffiti artists, activists and other concerned citizens. (Photo by Lulama Zenzile/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
The Ray-Bans created by Michael Elion were defaced, in protest, by guerrilla graffiti artist group Tokolos Stencil Collective with words such as Remember Marikana and We broke your hearts. Tokolos Stencil Collective is an anonymous group of stencil and graffiti artists, activists and other concerned citizens. (Photo by Lulama Zenzile/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

  • Public art in Johannesburg, uses 1% of the construction budget of all major city building projects (R10 million or more).
  • It is often viewed as low priority art as it exists outside of the gallery white cube system, but its prominence in communal spaces dares us to take it seriously.
  • The dominance of certain companies working in this space has resulted in the entrenchment of certain politics, deepening spatial apartheid in South Africa.

In the art world, public art is relegated to the lower echelons of concern, since it lives outside of the gallery space. The term "public art" is a crude one that ropes in sculpture, installation, murals, street art and graffiti. What public and whose land? Many remain oblivious to how this world operates, and the embedded politics that occur around them every day.

Michael Elion's Blindside

Understanding process is important. And a good reminder of why, is the contested Perceiving Freedom (sunglasses) sculpture by Michael Elion, erected on the Sea Point promenade in 2014. The project, belonging to Art54, was initiated by then Ward54 councilor Beverly Schaffer and run by the City. The sculpture was a branding stunt disguised as a kumbaya-esque tribute to Nelson Mandela overlooking Robben Island, described as a symbol of freedom.

Two weeks after its installation, the work was defaced by the Tokolos Stencil Collective, who posted "Remember Marikana" and "Myopic Art" slogans on the lenses as a form of protest. Elion subsequently used the lenses to encourage voting, with slogans calling for action that mimicked the DA election campaign. The lenses were then removed, and the frame of the sunglasses now sit bare. An awkward blight on the promenade, passed by hundreds daily. The question is how an artwork - so poorly conceptualised, out of place in its surroundings and highly criticised - is allowed to continue taking up space in prime real estate, where almost no other art is allowed to exist?

Public outcry over the sculpture raised many questions regarding how the permit was obtained, the Mandelarisation of a Rayban commercial, the funding, the allegations that the sculpture plagiarised the work of another artist - Marc Moser’s Sea Pink - and the whole conversation around white privilege. An online petition called for the artwork to be removed. Elion laid charges against Tokolos Stencils, artist Candice Breitz, Stephen Hobbs and others who spoke against the artwork on Facebook.

READ|Ray-Ban sculptor lays charges against critics

Did Elion commit the biggest art hoax of the past decade, pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes? Permission for the piece was granted by the City, but Elion had secured corporate funding for the project. He was sponsored by Ray-Ban. In this eloquent piece penned by Farzanah Badsha, a member of the selection committee for the artworks, she explains how the work came about.

Two days before national elections, Michael Elion
Two days before national elections, Michael Elion altered the frames on his controversial sculpture, which now sported slogans encouraging people to vote. The slogans closely aligned with the DA's election messaging at the time. (Photo by Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Meant as a fun oversized sculpture, Elion’s sculpture was to be placed on the Camps Bay beachfront. A  last-minute relocation saw it move to Sea Point, where it still sits today.

Badsha explains that there was no mention of Mandela in the motivation. She says: "Problematically, the artist changed his intent and started to embroider new meanings for the work… This was done without any consultation/notification by the artist of either the art54 Selection Committee or apparently City politicians or officials. He willfully manipulated an admittedly flawed process for his own gain."

All artworks for the Art54 project were meant to be temporary (exhibited between three months and a year). Yet the sculpture has stood in Sea Point for the past six years.

Mayoral Committee Member for Community Services and Health, councillor Zahid Badroodien says: "The installations were never intended to be permanent, and the artists were responsible for raising all their own funds and ensuring the work was maintained throughout the period." He adds: "Talks are underway to determine the way forward in terms of the installations."


The City of Johannesburg has a Public Art Policy in place, implemented in 2006, that requires 1% of the construction budget of all major city building projects (R10 million or more) be devoted to public art. Most of these projects are implemented by the Johannesburg Developmental Agency (JDA). The government puts out a tender or open call for public art projects, to which responses are received. Those options are weighed up and scored, and whoever fits the brief the best, wins the contracts. The process seems simple enough. However, the competition for these tenders is minimal.

The mural that runs along Louis Botha avenue in Jo
The mural that runs along Louis Botha avenue in Johannesburg is rumoured to be the largest mural in the city, a project of The Trinity Sessions. (Photo: Supplied)

The Trinity Session

The Trinity Session emerge as the number one contender in all public art projects in Johannesburg.  Their profile is extensive and covers some of the biggest public artworks in and around the city. The company is run by artists Stephen Hobbs and Marcus Neustetter. They work closely with the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), and thus have been a major player in the policy of making public art.

Hobbs explains that the company formed 20 years ago in response to the lack of arts infrastructure. "Our history with procuring public art goes back to the very early days of the City of Johannesburg doing so. One of the reasons why we are prolific in Joburg is because the city, through the Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage, has a policy that all capital expenditure on urban construction projects must make a contribution to public art."

How the tender process works, according to Hobbs: "The JDA in partnership with the Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage will release an advert calling for coordinators to run the process to produce the artwork. The city then organises a meeting and briefs everyone who is tendering - showing them the project area and rough estimate of a budget - and then you revert with a project plan."

The SAMRO Building in Braamfontein, Johannesburg g
The SAMRO Building in Braamfontein, Johannesburg got a face lift when artist Breeze Yoko was commissioned to do this mural on its highway facing wall. (Photo: Breeze Yoko/ Supplied)

As an example, if the project is a sculpture in Johannesburg, the city puts an advert out and invites professionals to respond. Hobbs says: "Once it is advertised, people respond with interest. We spend time on research and development, community engagement and research on history and memory of the place. In the case of a shortlisting of possible artists, a list of perhaps 30 artists will be generated and the list is then narrowed down to perhaps five artists who will compete and the best will be chosen – and that’s one example of a procurement process."

In the past, the city commissioned work on a precinct by precinct basis. "But in the last 10 years," Hobbs explains, "the artworks procurement process has become more sophisticated - they create contracts that have 3-4-year lifespans."

Hobbs says they’ve received two of these contracts, which fall under the title, "Curator and Co-ordinator for the implementation of…". Due to Johannesburg’s urban infrastructure projects operating on a very large scale, Trinity’s most recent project of this nature is called #ArtMyJozi, a three-year project described as a place-making initiative implemented along the Rea Vaya transit-orientated development corridors of Johannesburg.

About Trinity’s massive profile, Hobbs says: "One of the reasons why we get the tenders is we’ve had a lot of experience and hundreds of commissions. We’ve worked all over South Africa, We’ve worked in West Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and in many other parts of the world. We are very, very experienced.

Another section of the mural on Louis Botha avenue
Another section of the mural on Louis Botha avenue in Johannesburg. (Photo: Supplied)

"We are also professional, and we have a proper business structure. We have all the business insurances involved in this. You need public liability insurance, tax clearance. You must fully understand health and safety. There are many aspects of the work that are quite technical. The artwork is what everyone gets to see at the end, but just the financial management in and off itself is a huge responsibility."

When asked about their politics of space, Hobbs replies: "We are very aware of our white bodies and of our male energy. We’re very aware of the fact that through apartheid, the politics of space is a certain way. It is not to say we haven’t worked hard to get where we are."

He adds: "In public space, you are missing an opportunity if you don’t book artists from that space and who potentially know it better than you and who might certainly see you as an outsider. I’ve always felt that it’s like you are visiting someone’s home, so you need to deliver appropriate levels of trust and respect."

Despite being run by two white men who admittedly score low on BEE criteria, Trinity still dominates when it comes to being awarded government tenders for public artwork. Hobbs pins this down to longevity: "In order to win these tenders, part of it is that you really need to be a company with a track record; in addition, we’ve been doing it for a really long time. We are adjudicated by a committee that evaluate our proposals."

Since inception in 2001, Trinity has procured more than an estimated 400 pieces of artwork in the landscape of Johannesburg, working with roughly 3 500 artists. Their reach extends outside of South Africa, through to other parts of Africa, Europe, UK, and the U.S.

Auntie, Tietie, Mummy is a mural by prolific Cape
'Auntie, Tietie, Mummy' is a mural by prolific Cape Town artist Nardstar at the V&A Waterfront. The woman in this mural is not anyone specific but is a realistic woman that you would find in Cape Town. The caracal and the fynbos are meant to be a visual representation of the woman’s inner beauty, her strength and values. (Photo: Nardstar/ Supplied)

Cape Town

In Cape Town, the procurement for public art projects rarely operates on a high-budget tender process. These rather happen in the form of Request for Quotations (RFQ), a process established many years ago but is still in place, in which a company solicits suppliers and contractors to submit quotes and bids for projects. The RFQs are for projects under R200 000 but above R30 000. This is how most public art projects by the City work.

Most artists are left out from this process, because to qualify to apply, one needs to be an approved vendor. A long list of requirements is involved in becoming a vendor. This is a tedious and time-consuming process for artists. The tenders themselves, despite being public, go out on certain tender portals across various platforms, and are rarely collated in one place. This means they are often missed by interested parties.

The graffiti By-law introduced by the City of Cape Town in 2010, spear-headed by City Mayoral Committee member for Safety and Security, JP Smith, states "graffiti" means "any one of or a combination of any inscription, word, figure (other than a figure indicating a street number), letter, sign, symbol, sketch, picture, drawing, mural or design; that is applied to any natural surface or man-made surface on any property; and which is visible to a person from a public place; and which has not been authorised by the City;" is prohibited.

JP Smith’s Giuliani-esque “clean-up” of Cape Town deeply curbed the natural atmosphere of graffiti and street-art in the city. Smith had a Graffiti Control Unit made up of Law Enforcement officials set up to remove artwork all over the province, not discriminating between beautiful murals, wheat-pastes, or gang tags. In the morning, an artwork would go up, only for it to be buffed hours later.

WATCH| On the beat with Cape Town's anti-graffiti squad

A first offender fine is "R15 000 or 3 months imprisonment" and subsequent offences carry "a fine of R30 000 or 6 months imprisonment, or to both such fine and such imprisonment". The by-law prohibits any graffiti and regards all of it as public nuisance, without the use of a permit.

The City’s Public Art Department instead set up a process of permits which requires asking the owner of the property, and up to five neighbours for permission; submitting a proposal with a drawing to the City, which then seeks the  permission of five other departments in the city; after which a permit for City-vetted works may be obtained.

All these processes have contributed to stunting the vibrant culture of art on the streets that Cape Town once was legendary for since the 80s. Many artists are unaware of the vendor process and hence cannot participate in projects offered by the City directly. Others do not know the processes behind obtaining a permit. There is also a kind of loop-hole in the form of a self-permit, which means that if one has done 5 officially approved murals, then an artist is allowed to apply for a self-permitting licence and hence paint anywhere without going through the lengthy application process.

Mitchells Plain was a hub for graffiti and hip-hop and self-expression in movements that were vehemently anti-apartheid in the 80s. To relegate it all as vandalism, is to erase history. "Back in the day, as graffiti artists we claimed our territory. There were ethics and rules and things were resolved in our own way. But that doesn’t exist anymore because money corrupted the scene. We also didn’t take control of the money situation. So other non-BEE companies now get to benefit from this. This thing is political, racial and economical," says multi-disciplinary artist Breeze Yoko.

This mural on Harrington Street in Cape Town by Ba
This mural on Harrington Street in Cape Town by Bart “Smates” Smeets, was commissioned by BAZ-ART to serve as an advert for its upcoming public art festival. (Photo: BAZ-ART/ Supplied)


A combination of these situations primed the public art canvas perfectly for the entrance of Belgian-French owned company BAZ-ART. The company is the brainchild of French CEO of XO Africa, Sebastian Charrieras and Belgian Alexander Tilmans, co-founder behind craft-beer Leopold7.

In 2017, BAZ-ART set up the International Public Art Festival (IPAF) in the small working class neighbourhood of Salt River in Cape Town - with roughly 35 local and international artists participating in painting walls in the area. Materials and permits for the walls were provided, but the artists were not paid. This, despite the festival hosting artists from abroad.

Through the festival, over 100 murals have been painted in Salt River so far. According to Tilmans, the festival hosts 20-25 artists each year, 50% of them  local. The festival costs "R2 million on average. We cover it through sponsoring and donations. We also donate ourselves to cover the gap". He adds that international funding is for supporting international artists and local funding and sponsors for local artists. All walls are obtained through permits.

Major controversy, was sparked in the festivals’ opening year by artists already frustrated by Cape Town’s spatial apartheid. Artists had been previously used to 'beautify' Woodstock and hence drive up property prices.

Graffiti artist FERS, a local from the community of Salt River, pulled out from the festival early on. He documented his motivation in this piece. Referring to BAZ-ARTS mission statement, he says: "[IPAF] clearly state, 'Salt River’s unique character has started to become known to outsiders as the neighbourhood has entered the early phases of gentrification' and 'The movement is likely to help redefine Salt River as a dynamic neighbourhood with its own unique character rather than just a somewhat derelict neighbour to Observatory and Woodstock.'"

Nardstar, Fers and Smez on a wall in Heideveld. (P
Nardstar, Fers and SMET, The Writer's Only crew, on a wall in Heideveld. (Photo: Fers/ Supplied)

One of the city’s most prolific artists Nardstar* also vocalised her concerns in the festival’s initial year and did not participate. "Them not paying artists and using the word gentrification in the way they did, is what made me speak up about it at the time," she says. Breeze Yoko, who also did not participate, sent the festival a series of questions about funding, which received no adequate response. 

The festival subsequently removed any traces of words like gentrification and censored comments made on Facebook. Artists pulled out of the festival and made a public statement about the censorship and exploitation. Artist Fuzzy Slippers comments: "I chose not to work with them when I was approached for their festival in Cape Town, because they weren’t paying anyone. At this point in my career, I can’t afford to work for free unless it’s a charity."

Reflecting back FERS says: "The whole experience was weird and real shady. Their motivation clearly stated gentrification and saving the dilapidated community. It’s in Salt River, which is very strange. They stated their agenda and then tried to cover up their tracks poorly. We spoke out, they constantly censored us. It wasn’t a pleasant experience even when we met them in person at the festival. It just feels like colonialism on a street art level. It’s foreigners with foreign money and big pockets."

IPAF's website states: "By bringing internationally recognised art to the streets of Salt River, IPAF will rejuvenate houses, buildings, schools and businesses- bringing renewed pride, morale, hope and income to residents." This is the typical signifying language of the white-saviour complex that Africans have heard echoed a hundred times over.

The festival says: "IPAF is the largest public art festival in Africa that gathers local and international artists to create public art pieces that educate, uplift, and empower." Under mission statement on their website, it states: "Unlike the rest of the world, Africa does NOT yet have a flagship event expressing the history, the creativity, the talent, the richness, diversity and ultimate style of its Artists." The statement ignores public art festivals like Festigraff in Dakar, Senegal running since 2009 as well as Chale Wote in Accra, Ghana running since 2011.

Other concerns raised publicly by artists was about the festival being sponsored by a Belgian-craft beer that is locally brewed called Leopold 7 or L7  - the resemblance of the name of prominent colonial figure, Belgian King Leopold II responsible for major atrocities that killed millions in the Congo; was alarming to many. The beer company run by Tilmans, is the main investor and co-founder of BAZ-ART and hence chief partner of IPAF. This article states: "Leopold refers to an ancestor brewer. The name had a bad reputation in Cape Town…The African version has become the L7." Despite this vague explanation, the logo on the bottle sports a King’s crown.

BAZ-ART operates as a non-profit company now run by Tilmans and Melissa Cucci, and has grown immensely over the years. Charrieras’ company, XO Africa is also a main sponsor for BAZ-ART. In just four years, the BAZ-ART and IPAF’s website boasts massive sponsors and clients, among them: Business and Arts South Africa (BASA), Flanders State of the Art, Embassy of Israel in South Africa, Alliance Française  Belgian Chamber of Commerce for South Africa, PicknPay, Platoon, Sony Music, Shoprite, Apple Music, UNICEF and more.

Last year, BASA awarded the Small Business Award to ‘Wlit Brewery trading as L7 Craft Beer and Baz-Art PBO for the International Public Art Festival.’

Tilmans says: "We do work all around South Africa and for the first time this year we started also in other countries around the continent. Through the pandemic, we managed to paint in Accra, Lagos, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam which you can assume was quite a challenge."

When asked about the payment of artists, Tilmans said: "Artists participate in IPAF on a voluntary basis, but we cover all the costs pertaining to the creation of the work. Our promise to all artists that have participated in the festival, is that they will be provided commission work throughout the following years. The works in the festival allows an onboarding process and to get to know one another to work more efficiently in the future. So far, all participating artists have received work offers and we have no intention in failing this promise."

Arts24 has made contact with artists who said that they were not approached by BAZ-ART after painting for free at the festival. They were also not happy about not being paid. Other artists have mentioned that, when they were offered work subsequently by BAZ-ART, the fee they were offered was roughly a third of what the company quoted clients. The artist’s have chosen not to have their identities revealed, for fear of reprisal by BAZ-ART and it’s affiliates.

The City of Cape Town was asked directly how BAZ-ART has been allowed to dominate so much real estate within the public art sphere.

The response from was this:

“BAZ-ART is a recipient of grant-in-aid (GIA) funding, made available by the City to registered non-profit organisations who meet the criteria set out. BAZ-ART has dedicated itself to the development of local artists and public art, which aligns with the City’s strategy.”

Aside from the festival, BAZ-ART’S portfolio focuses on other mural projects, art education for kids, business skills for artists and street art tours by locals. Cape Town’s alleged largest public mural, is done by a Belgian artist, and not one from Cape Town. It is a 400M² piece in Harrington Street, commissioned by Baz-Art in 2018  to act as a billboard for their 2019 festival. When asked about how they secure space, outside of the usual permit and RFQ process Tilmans responds: "Asking, searching, networking. It is a very human and discussion-oriented process."

Artists Speak Out

The aftertaste of Elion’s work suggests that, with the right kind of money (and resources), public space may be manipulated by anyone.

These situations isolate independent artists whose bread-and-butter is obtained from commissions.  The same PR rhetoric appears in motivations including job creation, education, tourism, and community social impact – all selling points hard to argue by any public government system.

Nevertheless, those artists on the ground almost never meet those in whose hands the tenders sit. Through the work of companies like BAZ-ART, the city becomes a canvas that prioritises international artists over local artists, using state funds to accomplish this hegemony.

Whether in Woodstock or Maboneng, "there’s always international artists coming in, which becomes a metaphor of South Africa and Joburg itself. Who controls the visual dominance of the walls and how there is no reflection of the people of the city on the walls? Because the walls are being done by people outside these communities and even within the local ones; most of the graffiti is done by white kids. And from the commercials, all the advertising is benefitting white companies. So visually there’s nothing that celebrates or affirms your existence," says Breeze Yoko.

Due to BAZ-ART’s growing influence, they have created an identity for themselves as the go-to ambassadors of street art in Cape Town, but there many artists that are excluded from their agenda.

FERS comments: "Over the past four years, whenever I speak about IPAF, people freak out, as if they’re the mob or something. As if they’re going to come home and break their kneecaps with their paintbrushes or something. I’ve never seen artists that scared of an organisation ever, including people who painted there who did not want to speak on the record." This has been Arts24’s experience too.

Nardstar* is concerned about the lack of artist-led processes in policy making. "The tender process is also flawed," she adds. "It doesn’t consider the way that artists work and their process in terms of payment structures. When you’re working with artists, it shouldn’t be about whose quote is the cheapest, because that has nothing to do with the artist’s work and what will be the best for the space."

These situations have escalated a new need for artist-run community platforms or alternatives, to combat not only the spatial apartheid of where art happens, but to also dilute the monopolies of power in order to avert attempts at exploitation and gatekeeping. 

"Unfortunately, corporate clients are the gatekeepers. As artists, we haven’t unionised, there’s no industry standard. It’s a mess. We stay separated, and segregated and people still keep pushing for the bare minimum for us to do jobs. The power is in the hands of those who are giving the jobs," says artist Skubalisto.

"As artists it’s up to us. It’s not the kind of industry you go to school for. You have to be very self-motivated and very resourceful in an industry like public art which is fairly young in this country. There’s still no rules really. You have to keep your ear to the ground and use the people who came before you as resources."

FERS says: "There needs to be an organisation that understands the artists and looks out for them, that understands graffiti and street art, because a good 90% of them don’t. Everyone I’ve dealt with doesn’t." In August last year, he was part of a collective formed called Writers Only, which aims to host discussions about permits, transparency, funding and have every artist benefit from what they do.

"We just want something that counterbalances everything. I think the answer is taking the power and kicking down the doors ourselves and not having to deal with gatekeepers. Creating equal opportunity for everyone regardless of colour, creed, popularity. We just want inclusion, and we want everyone to benefit from this.

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