In 2009 we were commissioned by Visiting Arts and the British Council to work on their Square Mile project in South Africa. We were tasked with investigating the cultural, social and environmental ecosystems of Johannesburg.  We were hooked up with two local artists, Kyla Davis and Anthea Moys to work together on the project – we agreed immediately that we would only do so if this worked for us all, and fortunately, it very much did.

joburg skyline

We landed in Joburg late one night, and moved into our apartment. We’d insisted that, rather than being placed out into the suburbs we would need to be based within the square mile we were meant to be working in. We’d been told, in no uncertain terms, that we should only travel around by car and quickly get in and out of whatever venue we were visiting, as the high crime rate meant that we could be in danger at any time and that previous resident artists had suffered muggings or violence. We firmly ignored this advice – how could we fulfill the brief if we were permanently shielded from the reality of the place we were supposedly investigating? So we spent our first week walking around the city, poking our noses in and talking to people and, whilst there was an atmosphere of menace from time to time, our experience and well-developed ‘radar’ meant that we kept ourselves safe from harm.

We were being hosted by Johannesburg Art Gallery, the largest contemporary gallery in the whole of Africa – designed by Lutyens and situated in Joubert Park slap in the centre of Joburg, this once well-to-do area was now pretty much a no-go area for white people and the gallery was pretty much a fortress. Local police used the car park as a base for their vehicles which helped keep the gallery safe, but the area around it was very busy with low-income ‘re-purposed’ housing and it was rare indeed when you’d spot a white face.  Ideas started to form.

So, working  with Ant and Kyla we set ourselves up in the park the following Wednesday. Dressed in flowery aprons we made a stall where we would squeeze fresh orange juice and hand it out  to passers-by. It was very unusual to see white people, so we attracted a lot of attention (we did have a ‘minder’, the wonderful George Khosi, who ran a boxing club nearby, more of which later). In return we asked people to write their name on a luggage lable and then on the back, tell us where they felt safe or unsafe in the city.

the tema and the juice stall   People kept mentioning Hillbrow – this was the ‘dangerous place’, where people felt unsafe. So, we said, ‘OK. Let’s all meet there next Wednesday at the same time, and we’ll see what we can do together’. George runs his boxing club out of an outdoor boxing ring on Claim Street, so we arranged to meet everyone there.

We held a couple of dinners over the next week. The first, hosted at Anthea’s apartment was mostly local artists and activists, tee second, hosted at local eco-hotspot The Greenhouse (adjacent to the park) had a wider constituency of activists, a policeman, a local gang leader and some (white) people who attended the gallery. During both meetings one of the things that became increasingly apparent was that, since Apartheid (thankfully) ended, white people had mostly fled to the suburbs, and the former business district, around the park, had been converted, more or less legally, into low-income housing.  We spent some time in the suburbs, noticing the ‘trespassers will be shot, survivors will be shot again’ signage, the barbed wire and high walls.  People, rather than becoming more connected had clearly been driven further apart. We pondered this and started to come up with some strategies.

We went out to one of the nearer suburbs, ‘Parkview’ and started knocking on doors.  We were told that this wouldn’t work, that we’d get the dogs set on us, or even shot at, but we insisted that we’d give it a go.  We would approach a house and, the door was answered (usually by intercom), we’d ask the homeowner if we could have a single flower from their garden, which we’d take to Hillbrow to make it ‘beautiful’. This provoked some interesting conversations, which we’d end by taking their details and promising we’d send them a photograph of what we did with their donated flower. Far from having the ‘dogs set on us’ we filled two cars with flowers in an afternoon.

gate in parkview

So, we took the flowers back to George’s boxing club and started to get ready.  We decorated the space with the flowers, using empty beer bottles as vases – there’s a big issue with drinking and alcoholism in the area, and all the associated problems. We carried on with our theme, calling it ‘Move the Nation’ (our first intervention being ‘Nourish the Nation’), and started clowning around in our aprons, wearing headguards and boxing gloves.  We’d soon gathered a crowd, and some of ‘our people’ from the previous week returned. We asked the young people who’d gathered to teach us how to dance and we were soon having a hilarious ‘workshop’ inside the boxing ring. We got local photographers to take portraits of people, holding the flowers and made a group shot with a large group of street kids – it was a hoot.

We’d decided to keep the format, and agreed to meet everyone at the same time next week, this time at the Greenhouse project which was adjacent to the park.  We would call this one ‘Grow the Nation’ and we’d be looking at ecology and continue with our mapping of the city.

As well as our previous participants, we wanted to bring more people in. So, we created the ‘Joubert Park Fax Machine’ . We created a zipwire from the first floor of the partially-completed building in the Greenhouse, adjacent to the park onto a lamppost in the park itself.  We’d then send down airmail envelopes addressed to ‘you’ (in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa) asking ‘what are you doing today? Follow the trail of oranges and see what happens… (we’d created a trail of oranges, referencing our previous intervention, leading to the greenhouse).  Again, we were told that it wouldn’t work, people would be suspicious, nobody would come, etc. In reality, people were scrabbling to get a letter, and would run around to us – we got so busy we had to stop sending out letters…

When people arrived they were greeted by Ant and Kyla having afternoon tea near the entrance, who then directed them over to us in the bare-brick, half-built ground floor of the building. We would explain that we were foreigners, new to Joburg and could they possibly draw us a map of the city, marking on where it was safe to go and where it was unsafe – or the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ places. Some people clearly didn’t understand what a map was, so we asked them to draw us a picture of the city as if they were a giant, looking down at it. We soon had people of all ages, heavily concentrating on helping us out to the best of their abilities.  Once they’d completed their map, we would look at the map, ask them questions and say, could you help us out a bit more? Just go upstairs and our friend would explain.

Upstairs, our friend and ofttimes collaborator, Simon Walker had drawn out a huge map of the city centre, which covered the whole of the first floor. He’d ask them to take off their shoes, go and stand over where they lived, and then help us, by filling in the details we’d missed.

It became a really meditative experience for the participants, you could really see that they hadn’t really thought about where they lived like this before. They’d stand, looking down on the city, making connections and  they were soon filling in the gaps, as we’d asked.

Once they’d done their thing there, we said thanks a lot, and if you go back outside, the ‘ladies’ would have something for them. Ant and Kyla would meet them outside, with some of the volunteers from the Greenhouse, and then run workshops on urban gardening. Teaching people how to grow spinach in old plastic bottles. or potatoes in old tyres and the like. Food poverty is a big issue for people, so finding ways where they could take charge to some extent, and also get some healthy food was a really useful outcome. It also made them aware that they could do this stuff regularly by volunteering at the Greenhouse, which no one was aware of – like most places in the area the facility was pretty much a fortress so it was unsurprising that people didn’t know what was behind its walls.

For the next week’s outing we said we’d meet them at the same time in the park. As the ‘fax machine’ had worked so well, this time in preparation we hung the airmail invites onto trees in the park.  We’d noticed that, although the park was very beautiful, there was only one native tree in the whole place – it was very ‘English’. So, for this intervention we brought in a ‘tree expert’ and, on the invites we told people to ‘meet the man in the straw hat at the fountain at x ‘o clock. When the groups gathered, they’d be treated to a tour of the park, where they’d be told stories and legends relating to trees – as well as some factual ecological information.  When they’d finished their tour, we’d invite them into the gallery where they’d be met by Sandra singing an old English folk song, then we’d ask them to sit.  We then asked them to cut out shapes of trees, and think of what trees meant to them, and any stories they knew which related to trees. We then created an installation using the trees and got people to chalk theor stories onto the walls of the gallery. We gathered some great stories and legends from the various communities and clans that the participants hailed from which we’d use in our final intervention the following week. Instaed of having an exhibition launch, we would have a ‘landing’.

For the ‘landing’ we sent out postcard invitations to our friends in the suburbs, inviting them to an ‘exhibition opening’, with the usual wine and nibbles offering. With our participants from the city centre we invited them to a party at the gallery – know your audience…

In the gallery we had installed elements of each intervention to represent ‘installations’. Our wonderful volunteer, Ben Matongo nailed oranges to the wall, while Kyla and George boxed each other in the centre of the space. Lee read out the stories written about trees and Anthea ‘squoze’ orange juice – it was mayhem, in a good way, with street kids climbing on sculptures and a real, joyful clamour, so unlike most exhibition launches in major contemporary galleries. Props to Joburg Art Gallery for standing on for it, we’re certain that inside they were having kittens.

Like many of our ‘art exhibitions’ the whole thing was a ploy to bring people together, the project had been about the participants and the interventions, rather than any physical outcome. At a given point, we chinked our glasses and got everyone together to give a ‘speech’.

We then brought everyone together, the whitew people form the suburbs/ the street kids, the adults who lived in the neighbouring high-rise slums and told them we weren’t going to have a speech, after all, instead we would go on a walk together.  We led the group of around 200 or so outside, towards the park, where we’d installed a red ribbon across the entrance. Kyla cut the ribbon and we declared the park open – for everyone, black or white.  We then had the spectacle of the group of us walking around the park together, stopping now and then as a group to comment on this aspect of the project or that, or something about the park, Hillbrow or the city, discussing that it was for all of us and we would pledge to share it in the future.  Middle-class, middle-aged white women being led by the hands of tiny black street children, round the park and, by the time we returned to the gallery, the group had trebled in size.

Leave a Reply