Cale Waddacor, Iain Ewok Robinson and Sven Christian got together to talk about urban spaces and urban art. “Graffiti opens up a conversation,” said Waddacor, and indeed it was a catalyst for discussing broader issues. Here, we look at the bigger picture.

1. Feminism:
Anthea Garman kicks off the debate with a fiery start, asking “Where are the women?” Street art is male-dominated terrain, with only 5-10 female urban artists appearing in Cale Waddacor’s book, Graffiti South Africa. However, this may be changing as urban art increasingly includes stencilling, stickers and murals.

2. Anonymity in art:
The identity of an artist can change the way you perceive the art. With street art, however, you see something on a wall and can’t tell the age, gender or race of the artist.

3. Privilege:
Graffiti can teach you a thing or two about your privilege. According to Ewok, part of his privilege allows him to paint whatever he wants, and then leave that area, and people are just grateful that he has painted something. He doesn’t have to confront and deal with that painting on a daily basis. Street artists that go into communities need to consider this privilege, and the responsibility that comes with it.

4. Subjective realities:
When an artist paints in an area, attempting to evoke a sense of community the reality of a situation, is this really the experience of the community? We need to question whose community and whose reality is being sprayed onto a wall, and the process of consulting with people in those spaces becomes more important.

5. What constitutes space:
“There is no space without human beings attached to space,” says Garman. We cannot talk about urban spaces as just buildings and structures without considering the people that inhabit it.

6. Dialogue:
Graffiti is a lot like other community work. There’s a lot of work being taken to the townships and involves going into communities to do something, but not enough talking back of the dialogue into more privileged spaces. No one is going into places like Umhlanga, painting graffiti and having the same kinds of conversation.

7. Appropriation:
Like any other underground culture, graffiti is being appropriated for commercial uses. While police are cracking down on street artists and labelling their work as vandalism, graffiti culture and images are being appropriated by big companies on t-shirts, Playstation games and anywhere where it can be seen as “cool”.

8. Human nature:
A large part of graffiti is simple to say, I was here. From the kids scratching on school desks to scrawls on toilet walls, everyone wants to make their mark. For some who don’t know what the next day may bring, their street art is the legacy they leave behind.

9. The need for recognition:
“What sort of society breeds a desire to make their mark and say I exist?” asks Ewok. Perhaps what we need to worry about is a society of people who don’t feel listened to and acknowledged, and their need to make themselves heard.

10. Fighting back:
In Naomi Klein’s book No Logo she says that “It is one of the ironies of our age that now, when the street has become the hottest commodity in advertising culture, street culture itself is under siege”. When talking about urban spaces, we cannot ignore the fact that despite the street being a public space, it has been taken over by private companies as we are bombarded with advertising on light poles and giant billboards along the highway. Graffiti and street art is a way of reclaiming the public nature of that space and making it ours again.

Sven Christian, founder of ISM-SKISM

Sven Christian, founder of ISM-SKISM

Visitors to the small town of Clarens in the Free State, perhaps there for a quiet break or for the beer festival, often don’t notice the nearby township of Kgubetswana. This may change since Sven Christian and a team of artists set about painting over the town in October 2014. What begin as a once-off painting project has snowballed to the painting of houses, tuckshops and clothing stores to field fences, taverns and even a car.

Christian, a former Rhodes University Fine Arts student, began ISM-SKISM, a public art initiative that engages with the community using murals, graffiti and street art and imagines an entire community covered in paintings.

He takes us through some of the work that his team has created, showing us how along the process, more and more community members have become involved, creating a sense of pride in their space and themselves.

 

He hopes that more communities can be reached with this project in the future. It’s more than just brightening up spaces, he explains. Working with art and the community redirects tourism to lesser visited spaces, gives local artists a wider access to an audience, results in better paying commissioned work as local artists realise the value of their work, and creates confidence in a community.

Put in a PAIA application for access to information, lawyer Gabriella Razzano told the Think!Fest audience, the most active thing you can do as a citizen is to push the boundaries of information. In response to a question she said the beauty of a PAIA request is that once you get the information it is considered public, so you can publish and share it, also PAIA often allows one to put even classified information into public.

Gabriella Razzano 2

image

Siviwe MdodaThe tense relationship between the media and the state is nothing new. It was an issue when the apartheid government was in power, and remains to be an issue today. Speaking at Think!Fest, Siviwe Mdoda, of the Right2Know campaign, said that the current move to control the media and access to information began in 2009 – but was ignored by many people as it was seen as a middle-class issue.

That has now changed. Take housing protests. If the people needing houses are unable to access delivery information – like budgets and building targets – then how can they protest? Mdoda said that information is vital to every struggle that we have.

Initially, the fight for control of content and the suppression of voices was rationalised with a racist narrative. Blade Nzimande, one of the most vocal advocates for control, has implied that because the media is still controlled by white companies they don’t support a black majority government and will use any chance to criticise the state.

“Just because you don’t agree with a publication, it doesn’t mean it must be shut down,” said Mdoda. “That’s censorship. Another publication will say something else, so you should let the reader decide what they want to believe and read. That is the function of democracy.”

Even the recourse of the Public Access to Information Act offers limited respite. The 30-day application period affords defendants ample time to obscure information and there are few consequences for organisations that refuse to comply.

He also denounced the monopoly of telecommunication companies, which make South Africa one of the most expensive places to communicate. Because of this, we cannot advance education. For instance, one of the first places children turn to when doing homework is Google, offered Mdoda.  For this reason cheap access and minimal regulation are essential.

An increasingly popular way for the state to avoid information leaks is by making their employees sign non-disclosure agreements. What this essentially means is that even when people see corruption around them, they cannot report it because of the agreement.

Mdoda concludes by saying that this is just another example of how we live in a world where those who shout the loudest about democracy, practice it the least.

Iain 'Ewok' Robinson

Iain ‘Ewok’ Robinson

“When I was younger my parents told me I suffered from verbal diarrhoea,” says Iain EWOK Robinson. Now, the writer, poet, teacher, graffiti and street artist or as he defines it, a “spoken word flavoured hip-hop activist” works with words and a culture defined by expression.

When studying English at university, he discovered stream of conscious thinking and made the connection between that and his verbal diarrhoea. “I talk a lot, fast, and I just let the ideas go,” says Ewok.

He soon realised that when you make a connection, you feel smart, empowered and confident, and so he began to connect his work to activism. When we talk to children, we encourage role play, creativity and imaginative thinking in order to teach them the ability to think for themselves. That ability becomes their critical consciousness as adults, Ewok explains.

“If we have a mission as artists, let us make it our mission to make people feel confident,” he urges the audience.

The moment of connection between art and the audience is easily recognisable. It can be seen when people react spontaneously and enthusiastically, what Ewok calls the hmm! moment, based on the sound audience members make in response to particularly good part of spoken word poetry that resonates with them. It can also be seen from the clicking of fingers in appreciation. That moment of connection and empowerment can spur on further action, activism and creativity from the audience, and if they can create something new based on what the artist has given them, you’ve achieved your goal as an artist, Ewok believes.

In addition to working with words through slam poetry, he also uses graffiti as a form of expression. While graffiti and other urban art are often misunderstood and described as vandalism, the medium is actually highly communicative. It may not make sense or be legible, but it communicates a message; it says, ‘Hey I am here! Take notice of me!’

“Graffiti is not about what it says,” Ewok explains, “it’s about the fact that it said it.” Graffiti makes you aware of the surroundings. “You cannot see street art without seeing the street,” he says. “If you want to know what public space is, look at the graffiti,” he adds. Spaces such as walls, dirt bins and signs are spaces that may not be recognised as public until someone tags it and makes it a public engagement area.

Ewok engages with the idea of graffiti and public space, questioning why graffiti causes such offence to some. If you look at the definition of vandalism, a vandalised object is one that is damaged to the point where it cannot fulfil its purpose, he explains. A wall covered in graffiti still functions as a wall, so for it to be considered vandalism, something has to be broken. And if it’s not the wall, then perhaps what is broken is something inside of you, what is broken is your personal sense of aesthetic.

Red

Political theorist Ahmed Variava,sociologist Prishani Naidoo, curator Lerato Bereng and artist Simon Gush discussed the central place of work in our lives and politics and the refusal to do work as a political strategy. They used Gush’s exhibition Nine o’ clock and documentary Red as the departure points for the discussion.

Ahmed Veriava  Prishani Naidoo  Lerato Bereng  Simon Gush

From the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France to signal jamming in South African parliament, journalists all around the world have had to consider the meaning of freedom of speech, as well as the limits and responsibilities that come with having it. Satire features prominently on this year’s National Arts Festival programme, and press freedom remains a relevant topic. A Think!Fest roundtable on freedom of expression brought together four women to discuss their experiences and thoughts on the matter.

Sheniece Linderboom, Gabriella Razzano, Heather Robertson, Sophie Marsaudon

Sheniece Linderboom, Gabriella Razzano, Heather Robertson, Sophie Marsaudon

Sophie Marsaudon from Radio France Internationale (RFI) began the discussion by reliving her personal experience of being a journalist in France at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attack. For her, the attack on the cartoonists was an attack on journalism.

Heather Robertson, editor of the Herald and the Weekend Post, agreed that journalists, particularly the young ones, are indeed being bullied, intimidated and interfered with. As an editor, she has been accused by more than one political party as being a mouthpiece for the other. Rather than having one political party against another, it’s now more of a political party against the media, she said. While journalists are under attack, they cannot respond by doing nothing and must always strive to speak truth to power. “The ultimate enemy is not businesses or government, but apathy,” Robertson explained.

However, we cannot talk about freedom of expression without considering the responsibility to speak in a manner that is free from hate speech and does not infringe on other rights. The relationship between rights and the violation of those rights is complicated, according to Gabriella Razzano, head of legal research at the Open Democracy Advice Centre. Sheniece Linderboom, acting Executive Director of the Freedom of Expression Institute and an attorney by trade, agreed, stating that courts deal with instances of hate speech on a case by case basis, and so dealing with issues of press freedom is not clear cut.

Razzano believes that while the Charlie Hebdo attacks were a tragedy, they did begin important debates on press freedom. Perhaps now that people are talking, there can be more engagement, communication and listening. A prime example of the value of dialogue can be found in the aftermath of a Zapiro cartoon that was published in the Mail & Guardian and found to be offensive by the Muslim Judicial Council. A dialogue between Zapiro and the MJC, facilitated by Nic Dawes, ensued.

“A diversity of ideas is something we want, but it requires everyone to be invested in this idea,” says Razzano. The problem lies in getting everyone to be invested in the idea that all voices count. Not all voices are represented in the media, which also plays a role in how we understand things, according to Linderboom. People want to be heard and when they aren’t, they become frustrated and protest to be heard and then the media reports on that, she explains. The importance of genuine listening could not be emphasised enough, with Razzano agreeing that citizens can’t act on their rights when no one is listening.

When the floor was opened to comments, an audience member felt that freedom of expression is emphasised but not the responsibility, and that as consumers of media, we don’t see this responsibility in the media. Robertson responded, saying she believes that ultimately the readers are the bosses and that journalists have to serve them with honesty and integrity.

It is “not just about rights, but how we act as people in relation to those rights,” said Razzano, echoing the conclusion of the debate: a reminder that regardless of the tension between press freedom and hate speech, every person is human and deserves to be treated as such. We need to act with understanding and respect for others, and even in the face of hate speech, we cannot react with violence and the killing of others.

Speakers engaged with audience and answered questions long after the discussion had ended

Speakers engaged with audience members and answered questions long after the discussion had ended.

Sheniece Linderboom, Gabriella Razzano, Heather Robertson and Sophie Marsaudon with Ambassador of France to South Africa, Elisabeth Barbier

Sheniece Linderboom, Gabriella Razzano, Heather Robertson and Sophie Marsaudon with Ambassador of France to South Africa, Elisabeth Barbier


Cale Waddacor Photo by Paris Brummer

Graffiti is not just an outlet for delinquent youth who want to deface public spaces and get famous. This is what Cale Waddacor, author of Graffiti South Africa, the first book to document the post-apartheid boom in urban art, told the audience at the first day of Think!Fest.

CaleThe term “urban art” not only paints graffiti in a better light, but it is more inclusive term as it incorporates a bigger cross-section of artists, styles and mediums. These include spray paint murals, stencils, posters, wood cuttings and installations. The popularity of the internet has also fuelled the growth of urban art. One of the biggest digital graffiti sites in the world, Instagrafite, has over 1 million followers on Instagram. Waddacor says this is a way to not only preserve the work but to expose it to a larger audience.

As the lines between graffiti and urban art become blurry, the role these two forms of media play are more emphasized.

“It’s not always from the same genre and it is not always gang related,” he says. In fact, Waddacor says that graffiti has rules.

There are guidelines on where to paint, for example, the graffiti community frowns on spray painting a church, hospital or gravestone, he says. When something is painted, it’s called tagging. Some people have such a unique style that they ascribe a pseudonym, known as their street name.

Waddacor is adamant that graffiti has a purpose, which has led to it being acknowledged as an art form.  In Johannesburg, for example, there have been public art initiatives at bus stops.  Not only has this regenerated interest in modern art, but it also has encouraged creative expression, greater freedom for young artists, gentrification of suburbs such as Woodstock in Cape and Maboneng in Johannesburg.

Waddacor believes that urban art can inspire dialogue and social change and encourage interaction with other art forms. “The subject of the art is also very important. It can inspire dialogue, especially with difficult topics.”

“Perhaps all one can really hope for, all I am entitled to, is no more than this: to write it down. To report what I know. So that it will not be possible for any man ever to say again: I knew nothing about it.”

– From Andre Brink’s A Dry White Season

Godfrey Meintjes - standing

Godfrey Meintjes

 

Through a tribute by Andre Brink’s long-time friend and colleague, Godfrey Meintjes, Think!Fest audience members were able to follow the trajectory of Brink’s work and how he used his writing to report what he knew, particularly on South African socio-political issues.

The late Andre Brink, renowned South African writer, scholar and political activist penned many stories in both English and Afrikaans. Despite his book Keunis van die Aande (Looking on Darkness) being the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the apartheid government, his work had a wide reach and was translated into roughly 33 different languages.

Meintjes’ tribute, entitled “A chain of voices: The prose oeuvre of Andre Brink”, covered the English works of Brink, which ranged from modernist texts in the 60s to post-apartheid writing in the years before his passing. Meintjes spoke about Brink as the author, focusing on the work of Brink rather than his personal life. Speaking about the passing of Brink earlier this year, Meintjes concluded by saying that South Africa and the world has been deprived of Andre Brink at a time when his critical voice is still much needed and it is a loss that cannot be described in words.

 

 

Godfrey Meintjes - talking

Godfrey Meintjes - with books

It’s Winter.

It’s Grahamstown.

It’s Festival!

And where would you rather be than right here, right now?

All the plotting and planning since the last time we saw each other, all the conferring and conniving has all come to fruition in this moment as we gather here, right now.

This is the place where the art of talk is given life and space, this is where we unpick, undo, unpack and turn our tongues on the arts, the state, the politics, the economics, the issues, the context, the opinions, the contentions, the research and the shenanigans.

Our big topics this year are all about freedom of expression: surveillance and secrecy, limits to liberty and satire. What we can and can’t say, to whom, where, and why and how and when, are the issues that drive our debates and talks this year. How we know and what we know and what we do with our knowledge are the crucial acts (and arts) that define what kind of democracies and world we live in.

anthea 230615In addition we bring you a rich selection of discussions about the arts: music, film, writing… with the people who love and make these arts and with those who love and critique these arts.

As usual Eden Grove is a hub of the Festival: in addition to talks we have exhibitions and conversations with authors just upstairs and a book shop and a coffee shop.

Make this place your base and this booklet your guide and you’ll leave here enriched and engaged.

Welcome to Think!Fest!

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