We need Afrofuturism more than ever

There must be more intersectional visions of the future that include all races, genders, sexualities, species and religions.

Originally published by Dazed&Confused, November 2015

charl landvreugd

Charl Landvreugd

Ever noticed how few black characters there are in sci-fi flicks? How those that do exist are sidekicks, baddies or set up to die? How the attitude towards space exploration is markedly similar to colonisation? That the robots are almost always slaves to human masters? (no wonder they end up coming after us in the other handful of narratives) How economic and racial inequalities either magically become non-issues or are aggravated even more while everyone remains nonplussed?

These are some of the questions that Afrofuturist writers, artists and filmmakers from Philadelphia to Lagos, Rotterdam to Cairo and beyond are highlighting, inspired by the likes of interstellar jazz musician Sun Ra (famous for Space is the Place), and black feminist sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. By using science fiction to unpack hard-hitting social issues, these voices are saying we need more intersectional visions of the future that include all races, genders, sexualities, species and religions that make up humanity.

APOCALYPSE NOW

What is different to traditional science fiction is that Afrofuturism generally doesn’t play out in the distant abstract future but is set in the impending present. After all, technology-wise we’re living in the future that many of us grew up reading about – except for the flying cars. Many are also living the proverbial apocalypse. From the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Burundi and Baghdad to the earthquakes in Japan and Mexico, and the continued need for Americans to be reminded that #Blacklivesmatter, how much more catastrophic does it need to get before we agree that it’s time to reimagine our collective future?

That’s not to ignore the lived experience of everyday domestic apocalypses such as sexual abuse and violence. This is what Philadelphia-based social worker Ras Mashramani and lawyer Rasheedah Phillips translate into Afrofuturist fiction. Along with musician and writer Camae Defstara aka Mother Moor Goddess, the three women spread their work through photocopied zines that deal with issues like gentrification using the space invader metaphor, and domestic and sexual abuse through the lens of alien abductions.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

For many, along with the one in nine people in the world that go hungry every single day, even the notion of thinking about a future beyond the existing apocalypse – their next meal – is a provocation. Here Phillips, also the founder of the Afrofuturist Affair, proposes revisionist historical narratives that recast people of colour, women and LGBTI people as heroes of their own destiny.

In mainstream sci-fi, the time-travel paradox – in which changing something in the past might erase your very existence – trips up any attempt at changing history. However, says Phillips, this is a linear sense of time in which we are all slaves to the clock. In Black Quantum Futurism, she bends space and time in order to see into alternative futures.

TECHNOLOGY WON’T SAVE US

Unlike the externally imposed Western sense of time, an African sense of time is innately human and “it’s time” when everyone gets there. Egyptian graphic novelist Sherif Adel stretched time in his satirical depiction of Cairo in 1,000 years. Spoiler: he reckons it will be about the same – one giant traffic jam. This dystopian future expresses the disappointment following the Arab Spring revolution euphoria when mobile messaging technology was heralded as a rallying cry for the masses to bring down every corrupt state. And then the dust settled and the same people were still in power, only worse than before.

It is for this reason that novelists such as Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor is addressing political complexity with magical realism, best seen in Who Fears Death, winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. This year she published the prequel, The Book of Phoenix. The books engage with issues of ethnicity, female genital mutilation, gender equality and colonization.

Sherif Adel

EUROPA EUROPA

Charl Landvreugd’s Movement Nr 8: Destination Inner Space looks at a future vision of art in which a black body can talk about humanity in general, not just ethnicity. He says that he is from Rotterdam and the city is his home, but he has multiple homes, as with increasingly more people, regardless of ethnicity, impacted by migration. “Through the black body I’m trying to give a glimpse of us in the future.”

“I see the urgency of Afrofuturism for Rotterdam as a postcolonial, multiethnic city with a strong presence of the black diaspora. It is the speculative and non-white vision that this city needs, against the currently dystopian rule driven by angst-ridden white nostalgia,” Florian Cramer, says. Because of its experimental DIY countercultural avant garde quality, Cramer places Afrofuturism in the same realm as the punk, Fluxus, hacker and net.art movements. “It’s like being in London in 1977 and witnessing the beginnings of punk.”

Still, Afrofuturists are slim on the ground in Europe when compared to the US and Africa. However, as the neoconservative hatches come down in response to terrorism, there has never been a better time: what we know from punk is that fascism fuels counterculture. The time is now to make #Blackfuturesmatter.

 

8 things to do with unwanted statues and monuments

Rhodes will fall, but what about all the other monuments and statues throughout the country that remind us of South Africa’s painful past? Sibusiso Tshabalala and Nadine Botha found eight creative ways to reconsider history.

When Chumani Maxwele, a 30-year-old political science student, threw human faeces over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that stands in front of the University of Cape Town, few would’ve thought that this would open room for a much-needed debate about the significance of symbols and what they represent in post-apartheid South Africa.

Symbols are important to any society. Through street names, statues and names of places of public significance – like squares and prominent buildings – we venerate key figures in our history for their contributions to society. And in a subtle way, the symbols we choose tell us a lot about that which we aspire to be.

The preceding centuries of South Africa’s history as a nation are filled with accounts of brutal dispossession and marginalisation between different racial and tribal groups. But that’s not all, as Daily Maverick journalist Rebecca Davis noted the “realm of statues is still a man’s world” – meaning that gender is also an important part of this debate.

Do these symbols of apartheid and colonialism, many of which are anchored in their specific time, stay? Do they go? This is the debate that has engulfed Cape Town, swept across the country and even hit international headlines.

What is clear is that symbols that evoke feelings of offense and are reminiscent of our horrid past, need to find new places in the present. But many statues will stay mounted after Rhodes falls. How do we bring statues into our present and initiate an ongoing conversation and debate about their place in history and in our future?

1. Think pink

President MT SteynAydemir present steynDuring the annual Vryfees Arts Festival in 2014, Australian artistCigdem Aydemir explored using existing statues on the University of Free State campus, and around the city of Bloemfontein, to provoke debates on their meaning, relevance and place in post-apartheid South Africa.

Cigdem went all out with the #PinkPresidents and #PlasticHistories projects. She started off by physically shrink-wrapping two statues on campus: the statues of MT Steyn (the sixth president of the then Orange Free State) and CR Swart (the first state president of the Republic of South Africa, from 1961 to 1967, infamously known for playing an instrumental role in passing the Immorality Act).

In collaboration with another Australian artist, Warren Armstrong, Cigdem then developed a free-to-download augmented reality application for these statues that allows them to be viewed in pink through a smart phone or tablet. In addition to this, voices of South African female poets accompany the images.

Reimagining these statues and monuments from a queer and feminist perspective makes Cigdem’s work particularly significant. In her words, the project “aimed to acknowledge the contributions of people from marginalised races, communities and sexualities in the grand narrative of a post-apartheid South Africa”.

One of her most incisive comments about this project sheds light on how history is never static. Speaking about the use of pink shrink-wrapping over the statues she says:

Far from being set in stone (or bronze), [history] is plastic in the sense that it is constantly shaped and moulded based on our new knowledge of the past.

 2. Ironic superheroes

superhero statue 2The Monument to the Soviet Army in Bulgaria is infamous for having been painted to depict pop culture icons Superman, Joker, Robin, Captain America, Ronald McDonald, Santa Claus, Wolverine, The Mask and Wonder Woman overnight by an anonymous group of artists. Three days later the painting similarly disappeared overnight.

Since then a number of other temporary artistic protests have been staged using the monument as canvas. And, ironically for communism, it has become one of the hippest places to hang out, a veritable hotspot of “skaters, ravers, rasta and other subcultural groups”. Unfortunately, Russia’s not too charmed.

3. Bring it to life with performance

Infecting the City in particular has made us Capetonians acutely familiar withe how performance art draws people into spaces they wouldn’t usually go and engage with spaces through unexpected narratives. This was artist Athi Patra Ruga’s intention in his “Performance Obscura” work  a the 2012 Grahamstown National Arts Festival.

4. Make a stitch in time

AfricaWP1web3-816x544One of the most widely known means of temporary public installation, yarnbombing has swept the world. In South Africa, the Yarn Indaba yarnbombed the Voortrekker Monument in 2014. And in Cape Town, in 2012, Isabeau Joubert yarnbombed the “Bart Simpson” Africa statue by Brett Murray on St George’s Mall.

In 1998, artist Tracey Rose did it the other way around. Unravelling 25 doilies from her grandmother and coloured women in the area, she wound the threads around a police monument in Oudtshoorn. Although part of the Klein Karoo Kunstefees programme, the local police were fiercely offended and demanded that she stop, eventually using a knife to cut the threads. John Peffer discusses this highly-charged art performance in more detail in Censorship and Iconoclasm: Unsettling Monuments.

5. Put them all in a park

Those that are taken down, need not be destroyed, but can be relocated. In Hungary, Memento Park is alternatively called a historical theme park or an open air museum and is dedicated to all the statues from the country’s communist period. Designed by architect Ákos Eleőd, he said:

This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.

6. Dress them up

465x465q70marikana_street_2aba1In 1999 already, Beezy Bailey dressed the statue of Louis Botha as a Xhosa initiate with a traditional blanket and hat, and face painted with white clay. That he received death threats in the age before social media is an indication of just how thorny and how far back the question of our monuments goes.

More recently, in 2014, two years after 34 miners were killed at Marikana, an anonymous collective of artists swept the east city of Cape Town, dressing statues as miners and renaming streets after the deceased. Said the African Arts Institute’s Jill Williams to the Daily Maverick: “They aimed to give a human face to the number 34 using wording and imagery to evoke a sense of awareness and even emergency.”

Lumen17. Project it away

With projection mapping, high-definition video projectors can be used to display images on buildings and statues that completely mask the original. One of the projects at Open City on Church Square during First Thursdays entails Fabian Humphry ofLumen Concepts doing just that: projecting animations by various artists onto the facade of the Iziko Social History Centre, completely transforming it.

Grave of cecil john rhodes8. Hide them

Two statues of Rhodes – one from Zimbabwe and one from Zambia – have been stashed in the garden behind the national archives in Harare, reports the City Press. However, Mugabe is insistent on leaving Rhodes’s 1902 grave in Matobo National Park untouched as a reminder of the country’s colonial history.

Meanwhile, the removed busts of apartheid leaders, included HF Verwoerd, are stored in the bunkers of the Voortrekker Monument, reported Sean O’Toole in the Mail&Guardian.

Published at the Cape Town Partnership, 31 March 2015

Chopper safari

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‘Cape Town tower, Papa, X-ray, Juliet, good day and ready for lift,” my “baby” sister, Rudi Botha, says into the microphone of her noise-cancelling aviation headset. This is not a simulation and I’m most definitely not dreaming – except, when did the student transform into a tough-as-nails 24-year-old woman?

We’re sitting in a two-seater Robinson 22 helicopter (RH22) as the engine warms up for takeoff. The rotor blades are gathering speed, and sweat is pouring down our faces as the temperature in the tiny cabin climbs. Rudi’s reflective aviator sunglasses could not get more Tom Cruise, except this movie is more Top Girl than Top Gun, with the two of us about to helicopter into the blue yonder, like Thelma and Louise.

I repeat, this is not a simulation.

“Papa, X-ray, Juliet, lift own discretion. Remain west of runway one niner. Wind two one zero degrees, one two knots,” a male voice comes over the radio.

“Lift own discretion. Remain west. Papa, X-ray, Juliet,” Rudi chimes back. A qualified private helicopter pilot, Rudi has been adding flying hours towards her commercial licence for the past two years, and has about 75 of 200 left to go. Her school replaced the engine and main rotor blades on one of its RH22 choppers – the bodies last 6?600 hours, the engines up to 2?200 hours and the main rotor blades 2?000 hours. New engines need to be broken in with 25 hours of flying at maximum continuous power – ideal for high-speed, long-distance flights – before the helicopter can be used for the slower, more precision aspects of training.

So Rudi offered to take it for a spin around the country over the festive season, and we were up and away with the aquamarine of False Bay melting into the horizon on one side, mosaics of tin roofs below our feet and dark green mountains up ahead. It was my first time in a helicopter – no half measures for me – and I was so relieved to be feeling fine, over-the-moon excited to be on the brink of an unchartered experience, and gloating about my new Airwolf ringtone. It was time to take a selfie.

The plan was to take two days to fly up to the Free State over the Karoo, spend Christmas with our father on the farm, then take three days to fly back along the Wild Coast and Garden Route.

No, helicoptering in a RH22 is not really faster than driving when it comes to long distances, mostly because of the fuel stops every two hours or so – and we also had to wait out bad weather, sometimes for days.

The changing weather also makes it nearly impossible to book accommodation. Nevertheless, we still took the opportunity to smirk down at the Somerset West traffic pile-up and shrug at the escalating daily road-deaths reports, although it didn’t stop our mother’s frantic hourly WhatsApp messages.

The unmanned and noncommercial airstrips are a story unto themselves – a backstage of contemporary life that none of us ever see, and far grittier than Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport.

From the Jägermeister-bottle-lined clubhouse, replete with ties and G-strings nailed to the bar in Swellendam, to the ghost-like Graaff-Reinet airstrip, its tarred surface pointing to a more illustrious history now left to sunset photo collages, a very shy parrot and no running water.

The rather preppy Gariep Dam airstrip was home to the only other female voice we heard on the radio, belonging to the part-time air traffic information provider who keeps an eye out for the fleet of leisure gliders.

Larger aerodromes told different stories. Oudtshoorn, for instance, is dominated by an international flight training academy with a Chinese contract to train pilots for less than it would cost in the communist homeland. The cafeteria serves reheated stir-fry from sweaty bains-marie. Port Alfred is home to the famous 43 Air School, which trains SAA cadets, and where we eavesdropped on a conversation between a visiting graduate, now an SAA pilot, who bemoaned the number of disappearing planes. Bethlehem boasted numerous hangers and facilities, but once inside, most were empty, with less than a handful of people rattling around. But these impressions were fleeting and we strapped in again and left as rapidly as we arrived. Floating in a bubble with the ground 350m below our feet for an average of five hours a day makes it very hard to fully invest in what increasingly felt like trivialities of the human condition. The most literal physical embodiment of a “new perspective”, the bird’s-eye view made roads look like arteries, bushes like bunny rabbit tails,

hills like belly rolls and valleys like stretch marks, trains like mercury running up a thermometer, cows like omega seeds, rivers like wounds and gashes, shorelines like fractals and dams like mirror shards.

Different areas had different textures – the Karoo had a smooth fur-like layer of grass with a range of rich colourings mimicking animal prints. The Valley of Desolation was rough and hard, like a macroscopically enlarged gravel road, with scratches revealing fiery red soil beneath. The most geometric, like a meticulously laid out lappieskombers, was the Free State, while the KwaZulu-Natal hillocks showed a geometry of interlocking circles. The Wild Coast looked like a pristine golf course and, coming back to the Western Cape, it was all of the above – the most diverse.

From up there, the geopolitics of South Africa is also laid out for all to see: towns shaped like lopsided bow ties with large houses camouflaged by leafy streets and neon-blue swimming pools winking up from one side, and corrugated iron matchbox dwellings tightly gridlocked in a stark mirror image on the other side.

Working the nine-to-five in a city, one can get quite mentally stuck in the global urbanisation project of the 20th century – you know, “cities are the future” kind of thing – but there are thousands of kilometres and tens of hours between moderate sprinklings of human life out there. Entire expanses, especially on the Wild Coast and in the Valley of Desolation, had no signs of human life.

Time and space is different out there in the middle of nowhere. Take, for instance, the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda, which is the prolific artistic output of 31 years of Helen Martins’ life squeezed into a single museum.

In the 21st century, investing that amount of time into any project is hard to wrap your mind around. Even 200 hours towards a commercial licence sounds like a lot.

We flew around the country in 24 hours – the same amount of time it takes the earth to circle the sun – and less than a week later, we’re back at our office jobs.

Yet everything feels different. Anything feels possible. And that’s a holiday feeling worth having when starting off the new year.

Published by City Press, 18 January 2015

Put money where your mouth is

Jules Mercer spares no expense in curating her marvellous feasts in the most unlikely venues.

‘There is no dress code but please don’t wear high heels,” reads the ticket to the Outlandish Kitchen. And that’s about as pretentious as this pop-up eating experience gets. But how were we to know that, peering into the Kalk Bay Community Centre at two laden banquet tables, wondering whether we’d gate-crashed someone’s wedding?

We were expecting a five-course meal with wines and all the typical social aplomb that would go with it. Quite the opposite. A stack of serviettes was passed around on the balcony before we ate the snoek aperitifs (pâté with bread, fish balls with Malay mayonnaise and baked with apricot butter glaze) with our fingers; rather messy to say the least.

It did make for general ice-breaking, in which I met a couple from Australia who had seen the event on Facebook, figured that they would be in Cape Town at the time, and booked tickets.

The balcony’s waterproofing was the reason for no high heels. Built in 1906 and originally a sewage pump station, the Kalk Bay Community Centre was converted in 1935. It still plays an active role in the social life of the area, hosting markets, yoga, dance and other classes. Historically, it has functioned as a World War II entertainment centre, a municipal library and a council cash office.

We entered the hall and found our name cards; the “tablecloths” were newsprint, laid with mismatching plates and stock-standard tumblers, and decorated with unwashed potatoes, paper straws and glass paraffin lanterns.

“We’ve wanted it to be all about the food,” says organiser Jules Mercer, a trained chef-turned-food writer and stylist, who has leveraged her connections with local farmers to curate feasts served in unlikely venues.

“Once you’ve paid, I tell you where it is. That’s it. Otherwise people come with too many expectations,” she says, explaining the unpolished charm of the venture, still marvelling that complete strangers (from Australia even) are happy to put R550 a head into her bank account without even asking who she is.

Trust is the key to this story and it goes back to trusting our food, what’s in it and where it comes from — something all South Africans can identify with after the recent donkey meat scare.

“Are we happy to buy poor quality meat?” asks Mercer. “As long as it’s cheap, we don’t complain. But how much water is in that mince? And the addition of brine and meat extracts to chicken and other meats — is that okay with you?”

Local and lekker

The concept of the Outlandish Kitchen builds on the locavore principle (eating food grown within a 160km radius of your home) by adding that, not only is the produce reared in the immediate proximity and artisanally treated, it also has a person and a story attached to it.

By introducing the farmers and their fare and sometimes even their farms when they are used as venues, Mercer hopes to make diners more aware of what they eat and where it comes from.

As special guest of the event, Janine Basson of the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative, an initiative of the World Wildlife Fund, casually chatted to us about responsible fish eating, over courses of farmed Saldanha oysters, followed by trout boards from the Streams Fisheries in Franschhoek. The trout is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (an environmental standard) and “by using it in the menu we wanted to show how smoked trout can be just as delicious — local and lekker — as its Norwegian salmon counterpart,” says Mercer.

“Oh no, I’m not the chef; you must be crazy,” Mercer laughs boisterously as she hoists the huge mussel pots of the next course on to the table. Served with baked angelfish, potato salad and a garden salad with such unusual delights as zucchini flowers, the mussels were one of the two unanimous highlights.

Chef Rina van Velden studied at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch and has worked at Le Quartier Francais, Welbedacht Wines and Mamma Mac’s Bakery. With her emphasis on the produce itself, however, Van Velden’s style seems closer to Babylonstoren’s. “Rina is an alchemist in the kitchen — and ridiculously humble!” says Mercer.

All the while the food was served with wines from Usana Farming Estate where “brothers JP and Pierre Winshaw work hard to produce a range of delicious wines, along with pasture-reared eggs, lamb and beef,” explains Mercer, who has a similar anecdote for just about everything on the menu. The bread, for instance, is from Oude Bank Bakkerij in Stellenbosch and the exquisite salted-caramel and fig ice cream — the other unanimous highlight — is by the baker’s wife, Chanelle.

How does one really put a price on this word-of-mouth food network? “We all need to get it into our heads that we need to pay more for our food. Full stop.” Mercer puts her wine glass down and gets serious. “If something lands on my plate and it’s really cheap, it worries me.”

In an effort to make this type of food more accessible, Mercer has now also launched the Outlandish Kitchen food boxes — and we’re not talking limp, sandy, malnourished-looking vegetables, if the treasure-filled salad was anything to go by. A basic box includes seasonal organic veg from Naturally Organic and properly free-range eggs from the Winshaws. Two variations on the basic box include exotic mushrooms, wine and pork cured by the renowned Richard Bosman. Prices range from R150 to R500 and can be ordered online (delivery is extra).

Mercer talks about everyone as a personal friend and struggles to quantify the value of the venture. Deals and bartering, word-of-mouth connections, and new friends through the producers and the guests who come to the event … trust is the currency. Like the packet of heirloom seeds that each guest received as a take-home gift, the investment is more than money and the antithesis of the instantaneous gratification of our contemporary food culture.

“If I look at the amount of time that I put into each event, I’m not doing it for the money, and as soon as it stops being fun I’m going to throw the towel in,” Mercer says. “Although I very nearly reached that point when the hot water gave in on Saturday night and at 1am we had to put every drippy fishy plate in my car and drive them home to be washed!”

Mail&Guardian, 5 April 2013

Plastic post-mortality has been perfected

Having showed across the world for the past 15 years, the blockbuster Body Worlds exhibition has now berthed in Cape Town.

It runs until January 31 at the V&A Waterfront and comprises a selection of German scientist Dr Gunther von Hagens’s plastinated bodies.

From mummification to embalming, the human fascination with the preservation and anatomy of our bodies is hardly new. Nonetheless, one can’t help smirking at the appropriateness of the term “plastination” to describe the 21st-century quest for post-mortality. The process, which involves replacing the water and fat in a cadaver with special plastics that preserve it without smell or decay, was discovered by Von Hagens in 1977.

Since the first Body Worlds exhibition opened in 1997, some 35?million people in 70 cities worldwide have flocked to see it. For many others, however, the concept evokes revulsion and horror, because plastinated  “bodies” is a palatable euphemism for “corpses”. And let’s not forget the ethical and religious implications of traipsing these human remains around the world as a consumer spectacular; tickets for adults cost a whopping R140.

Von Hagens has always defended his motives as being purely educational and driven by a desire to share the wonders of anatomy with the world. Furthermore, despite ongoing accusations about the dubious origins of the bodies, Von Hagens insists that all come from voluntary donors and that the foetuses and organs are sourced from anatomical collections and morphological institutes.

In the exhibition’s South African manifestation, these educational motives come through in the curation of the sections: the cycle of life from conception to old age, the creativity and development of teenagers, how sight and vision change from birth to old age, extreme old age and HIV/Aids. The HIV/Aids section is a world premiere and comes across as quite patronising, because it appears to have been created specially for the  South African leg — there is no link between the information provided and the plastinated bodies.

Across the exhibition, all the information and text is pitched at about a grade seven level, although the bodies themselves are not shy about showing their genitals. For a doctor or medical student, the exhibition must be fascinating. However, there will surely be a large part of the population that will leave hankering after something more. Given the international status and ticket prices, one would have expected a multi-streamed exhibition catering for different ages.

Even though this is supposedly science, there is also a slipperiness between the objectivity and subjectivity displayed. For instance, all of the models have had their ears, eyebrows, noses and lips reconstructed in generic form, which is meant to make it easier for visitors to relate; however, the taxidermy glass eyes are all blue and the eyebrows all strawberry blonde.

The Aryan race aside, my feminist self was outraged that the anuses and labia were also given some reconstruction, but the clitoris not. The inherent deceit in what is real and what is reconstructed in the exhibition is not commented on and is akin to a Monet fake being displayed as the real thing.

These are minutiae compared with the outrageous poses the corpses are arranged in: saxophone player, ship captain, ballet dancer and full-on sex scene.

Obviously these poses are for entertainment value, but that was really the creepiest part because, along with the blue glass eyes, it comes across as human taxidermy. Anyone seen the grotesque 2006 Hungarian black comedyTaxidermia?

Mail&Guardian, 30 November 2012

Cityscapes

What is a world-class city? This is the question that leads the second issue of the new urban-focused magazine Cityscapes, published by the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities. The center’s director and consulting editor of the magazine, Edgar Pieterse, features prominently in Gary Hustwit’s recent documentary Urbanized which explores city design and planning, as well as the fate of the Olympic city once the games are gone.

The notion of the city as a subject of design has come up in recent conversation once again—besides Urbanized, last year also saw the Cooper-Hewitt Museum’ssecond “Design with the Other 90%” exhibition, this time themed on cities. Meanwhile the World Design Capital biennale celebrating urban regeneration through design is also growing in profile, this year hosted by Helsinki.

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Most of these initiatives brandish the fact that more than half of the world’s 7 billion people now live in cities, and that the world population is predicted to reach 9 billion by the year 2050—80% of whom will be living in cities. However, what’s not been talked about as much is the prediction that 97% of that 2 billion will be born in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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This “Global South” is what the Cityscapes magazine concerns itself with, while discussing why the question of a “world-class city” is relevant. Are the exponential growth rates of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) going to result in blind urban mimicking of the aspirational qualities of “world-class” Western cities without pause for redesign and improvement?

Co-edited by Sean O’Toole and Tau Tavengwa, the team behind the heyday of theArt South Africa quarterly, the magazine doesn’t simply rely on design to answer the question, but looks to academia, art, philosophy, music, photography and on-the-ground reporting to paint a comprehensive picture. At the same time, its application of a design lens to unlikely bureaucratic subjects gives the publication a refreshing, totally unique angle.

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The result has been described as Africa’s answer to Monocle, something of a gritty, pensive, self-aware, counter-revolutionary alter ego of the British “city porn” Bible. As the magazine’s designer Tavengwa has applied a design-style sheet that balances sophistication and earthiness, which is rumored to have brought in fan mail from Rahul Mehrotra, the head of Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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The first edition is completely sold out, but the second issue is currently available from the African Centre for Cities (contact them through their website to receive a print copy). Content includes design reports on the “world-class” development of Johannesburg and Bangalore, and an interview with the mayor of the most dangerous city in the world, Mogadishu. Contributors include Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, Kerwin Datu, editor-in-chief of The Global Urbanist, narrative journalist Kevin Bloom and Congolese filmmaker Djo Tunda wa Munga.

Coolhunting.com, 4 June 2012

Woodstock: A work in progress?

Artist uproar as gentrification in the Woodstock Industrial Centre has threatened the suburb’s ‘run-down’ factory atmosphere.

An evening of misty rain is not typical of the otherwise oven-like month of February in Cape Town, but it matched the mood of A Word of Art’s last blast in the Woodstock Industrial Centre as it is now configured. The trademark flash mob bursting the building at its seams and the youthful elixir of invincibility had evaporated.

Established in 2009, A Word of Art has transformed itself under the leadership of Ricky Lee Gordon from an artist management outfit to an agency for art activism with live-in studios and a gallery. The gallery and most of the studios are being ­relocated during renovations. The gallery will be reopened in April and the studios in a different part of the building in July.

Although, strictly speaking, it was not the last blast—the party was even called “It’s not over”—the graffiti-lined corridors, already showing the licks of whitewash, and the guests, including a who’s who of the local creative class, gave it the feeling of a memorial service. Everyone knew it would never be the same again. Some of the resident artists had been evicted and the word was out that the entire tenant list was being reviewed.

The building was bought in December by Indigo Properties, which is redeveloping it. The company was behind the well-known Biscuit Mill development, also in Woodstock’s Albert Road. The change in ownership of the Woodstock Industrial Centre has already led to evictions from what had become probably the largest conglomerate of artist and designer studios in Cape Town—more than 75 at its peak.

Tenants told to vacate their live-in studios

Kathryn Smith, Christian Nerf, Love and Hate Studio, Senyol, Justin Southey and Gordon himself were given a month’s notice to vacate their live-in studios. Most of the other tenants who rented studios have been given the option of staying on with a 10% increase in rent.

Senyol, an illustrator widely recognised for his abstract street-art style, said he could not understand how the tenant list could be reviewed without prior notice, or even why the owners did not let the tenants know that the front of the building would be repainted.

There has been a widespread uproar on Facebook about the eviction of the Golden Plate Take Aways, a corner café that has been there for more than 50 years. More than 50 people voiced their outrage in response to a post on January 27 by Kent Lingevelt, a custom skateboard designer, who until last month had been a tenant there for seven years.

Responding on behalf of the Indigo Group, Nick Ferguson said: “Golden Plate has been in the property for a long period of time but, from my point of view, has become lethargic and don’t add any value to the building or the area.”

He added that Golden Plate did not contribute to the “face” of the building, had a large outstanding debt with the previous landlords and had a major kitchen-hygiene problem. Furthermore, contrary to the rumours, the owners of Golden Plate were offered an alternative venue in the building for a kiosk.

“If it [Woodstock] is being gentrified now, it’s all normal. It’s not a clandestine plot against poorer people, just natural economics that value can be created from neglected properties in good areas. It’s a positive thing that there is investment and improvements, or else we would spiral into a slum,” Ferguson said.

Gentrification is a ‘natural market response’

Independent researcher Andrew Fleming agreed that gentrification was a “natural market response” and said house prices had been increasing in Woodstock since the late 1980s. He said the proper definition of gentrification was linked to property prices and not the trendy coffee shops that many liked to associate with the word.

Fleming’s master’s degree at the London School of Economics in 2011, on the changes in the suburb, was titled “Making a place for the rich? Urban poor, evictions and gentrification in Woodstock, South Africa”. The African centre for cities at the University of Cape Town will publish it later this year.

“At what point does intervention need to happen to ensure that lower-income people can still live there?” he asked. Fleming said the historical significance of Woodstock was that it was the only inner-city suburb that was not developed after the forced evictions during apartheid.

He said informal renting contracts and a lack of awareness of how the Constitution protected residents made them vulnerable and President Jacob Zuma’s new housing policy needed to take the special circumstances of suburbs such as Woodstock into consideration.

“Making places like Woodstock affordable can undo the apartheid geography that divides Cape Town,” Fleming said.

However, with regard to commercial cases such as the Woodstock Industrial Centre and other “fortress-like” commercial and office developments that were being built in Woodstock, they drew in people who did not participate in the surrounding community. “Look at the way the Biscuit Mill has been designed. It’s very exclusionary with a huge fence around it and access control. The businesses are not owned by people from Woodstock and the goods that are sold are rarely from Woodstock. It’s certainly not a ‘neighbourhood’ goods market,” he said.

“If you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll find that most high-end shoppers don’t want an integrated market. They just like the idea of shopping in Woodstock and being leftie-liberal.”

Ferguson was also sceptical about how far Capetonians’ liberalism went: “This Facebook protest is a handful of people who have probably never been to the Golden Plate.”

What about the creative gentrification? And what will happen to the artists? Many are angry and leaving, but some are regrouping in the nearby Side Street Studios, owned by Elad Kirschenbaum, who sold the Woodstock Industrial Centre.

But the majority, about 50 of the tenants, are staying.

However, the greatest loss will be the run-down factory atmosphere that invited an anarchistic mood of infinite possibility—the winding, maze-like corridors that were, for a moment, below the radar of the arts establishment.

Mail&Guardian, 19 March 2012

Back to retro

A new, intimate market in Cape Town offers an authentic experience of designed nostalgia, writes Nadine Botha

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Emos, hipsters and cool kids might be more frequently spotted in their nocturnal state, but drawing them out into the Saturday morning sunshine is the You & Me & Everyone We Know Market.

A mostly fortnightly jaunt in the courtyard of the historical Labia Cinema, the market is a haven for all things vintage, retro and the like. Frocks, jewellery, sunglasses, shoes, clutch bags, T-shirts art and rosettes make up most of the fare. “Vintage and retro” should not be mistaken for second-hand or the Milnerton Market boot sale. While some wares might be pre-owned, this is not the impetus of You & Me & Everyone We Know.

Rather, the market sells a certain aesthetic – the sunglasses are certainly not pre-worn, although they could have been taken out of any episode of Mad Men.

The market is based on “designed nostalgia” and the desire for an authentic experience rather than the mass-produced consumer one.

As co-founder of the market Marcii Goosen says: “It is small and intimate. I think people feel like they belong; it’s almost like they are hanging out in my back garden with a visual feast and beautiful people around them.”

An artist, designer, art director and self-described “creative networker”, Goosen was inspired to start the market when she realised her super-talented friends had nowhere to share their work.

The first market was just an informal gathering in her studio in 2009. Having spearheaded the Labia’s 20-year anniversary celebrations earlier that year, Goosen knew this underappreciated cultural gem was the ideal location for expansion.

Using Facebook and word of mouth, the first market at the Labia drew a crowd that included Adel Snyders, the other co-founder of You & Me & Everyone We Know.

As managers and curators, Goosen and Snyders balance the diversity of the exhibitors, continue introducing new talent and keep the face-paint and crystal stalls at bay. The biggest challenge, says Goosen, was to not compete with Whatiftheworld’s Neighbourgoods Market in Woodstock.

“We wanted the city kids to have a local hangout under the mountain, and we wanted to give exposure to the Labia Theatre, which is the oldest cinema in the country. We also wanted something intimate, small and manageable. We are influenced by subcultures, popular culture and things of the street – the real and the now, the old as much as the new that we create in Cape Town every day,” explains Goosen.

Usually the market runs every two weeks on Saturdays, with the next two on February 12 and 26. Watch the website for news: http://www.youmeandeveryoneweknow.co.za

Published by the Sunday Times, 5 February 2011

Paint the town with poetry

Lemn Sissay turns words into monuments, literally. Spending some time in South Africa, the poet gives Nadine Botha a verbal whiplashing.

Lemn Sissay is a seasoned interviewee. At 21-years old, he published his debut collection of poetry to critical acclaim and, in as many years, has since published seven anthologies and four plays. Telly-watchers will recognise him as the youngest Grumpy Old Man on the first four seasons of the hit BBC sitcom, as well as the subject of the documentary Internal Flight. In 2007 he became artist-in-residence at the Southbank Centre. Sissay has been turning poems into landmarks since the late 1990s.

Yes, this is a rare poet who has had enough interlocution with the media to remember his own catchphrases, yawn at the boring questions, predict my oohs and aahs, laugh at his own pull quotes and interject himself with a shake of the head – “I can see the article now”, he mumbles to himself throughout the interview.

But where the reporter always gets hooked, he says, is on the subject of his gruelling childhood. “And who can blame them?” he shrugs off the stark tale of an Ethiopian student who lost her son after placing him in temporary foster care in the UK. What happened was that the care worker renamed the infant Norman, after himself, and allowed a British family to legally adopt him. Religious zealots from Lancashire, the foster parents believed that God had sent “Norman”. When “Norman” was 11, the family came to believe that he was evil and was promptly returned to the foster care system to spend the next seven years of his life in-between children’s homes. The first time he met another black person was when he was 14. He reclaimed his name, Lemn Sissay, at age 18.

“It was an emotionally violent existence and I had to find a way of interpreting the world into a place without violence, so that I could see wonder, because I deserved to see wonder,” Sissay explains his turn to writing.

Since he was 18, however, Sissay knew that he had to find his family. “It’s become the narrative of my adult life,” he smirks at what has become one of his catchphrases. After finding every last one of them – from Ethiopian mother and dead Eritrean father to siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents – by the age of 32, he coined another of his catchphrases: “I now have a dysfunctional family like everyone else!”

Sissay’s humour is so self-aware, so to-the-bone and so subconscious, it is often intestinal. “You know like a child who is laughing and then is kicked. They don’t understand the pain, but they do understand that they were happy. So their relation to laughter is really in contrast to the punch. But we all deserve to laugh. And… I’ve never said this before…” He breathes in: “Laughter is a shortterm hit, not the answer. Only a fool thinks it is!”

He beams, shakes his head at himself and rambles on: “The poems and writing for me are totally beyond my narrative. It just happens that I was lucky enough to find this great ship that can carry pretty much anything. There are small quarters on the ship that is my family story and every time I speak to a journalist, they want to go to that room. That’s okay.”

Turning to gloat, he says: “But actually, I’m rocking out to sea, riding the waves, putting up the sails and fishing.” Gloating because now, in his early forties, Sissay has come to realise: “My poems are my family.”

He lowers his voice: “I found my family all over the world, my actual physical blood relatives. But my poetry has been with me for longer. So when there wasn’t family, there was poetry. And to be honest, there’s more truth in my poems than I will ever be able to extract from my family.”

Imitating Dr Evil, he raises his eyebrows a couple of times. Sissay’s incomparable ability to wear fragility as armour is dumbfounding. We’re sitting in a coffee shop off Long Street in Cape Town, shortly after the Africa Centre’s Badilisha Poetry X-change, and Sissay flags down a passer-by only to find that he’d mistaken them for someone else.

Electrifying audiences with a mind that runs faster than his tongue, a few weeks later, Sissay headlined the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and went on for a run at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. None of these are Sissay’s first visits to South Africa. He has been visiting regularly since 1994 when he participated in a Robben Island project. Of the country, he says: “I always find the greatest communities in the world have a very complex set of arteries surrounding their hearts.”

Similarly for this “first generation Ethiopian Eritrean Brit”, as he calls himself, the question of identity is like the colour of the sky. “It’s like saying the sky is blue, but it’s not actually, it’s a reflection of the sea. So you could say the sky is blue, the sky is invisible, the sky is grey… it’s all of those things. Stories aren’t simple, which is why we have creatives. And we’re all creatives,” he reasons.

Going on, he insists that “creativity is an integral part of society, it’s not on the periphery but at the centre”. This is the power of the arts for Sissay, beyond the needs for context, narrative or legacy, he vehemently continues: “We have never lived without art, yet society perceives art to be an addition to life and the fact is, if you look at our religions, they’re all told through great stories, literature and art – physical art. The artist is often employed to carry the message, but sometimes I wonder, isn’t the artist itself the message?”

Taken from a man who has transformed poems into physical landmarks throughout the city of Manchester, now infiltrating London, such talk is only mildly alchemical. What is gratifying about his poetic interventions is that, as Sissay says, “The beauty of a landmark, is it’s not a landmark by you, it’s by other people. You can’t build a landmark, people have to choose it.”

The first landmark was the result of a taunt from some mates in a local pub and Sissay decided to “show them”, resulting in Hardy’s Well being branded on the eponymous pub. Since then he has inscribed Rain above the Gemini Take Away, Flags on the cobblestones along Tib Street and Catching Numbers in the Shude Hill Bus Station, all in Manchester. Last year, he unveiled The Gilt of Cain in London. This collaboration with sculptor Michael Visocchi commemorates the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

“The beauty of a poem in the landscape is that you suddenly start to notice a building that you always pass without noticing. It’s not about finding the biggest spire, but about discovering your neighbourhood and bringing people to an environment that they might not have discovered by their own eyes and ears,” says Sissay. He shrugs: “The poems are architecture.”

Visible creativity is an urgent message for Sissay, as he reemphasises: “There is a structure and anarchy that an artist acknowledges and we need that, even if a lot of the time we are afraid of seeing it.”

“Why are we scared?” I ask rhetorically.

But this man of woven words has an answer: “Because art has always gotten to the truth of the matter and we have been taught to be frightened of the truth of the matter.”

ARCHITECTURE

Each cloud wants to be a storm
My tap water wants to be a river
Each match wants to be an explosive
Each reflection wants to be real
Each joker wants to be a comedian
Each breeze wants to be a hurricane
Each drizzled rain wants to be torrential
Each laugh from the throat  wants to burst from the belly
Each yawn wants to hug the sky
Each kiss wants to penetrate
Each handshake wants to be a warm embrace
Don’t you see how close we are to crashes and confusion,
Tempests and terror,  Mayhem and madness,
and All things out of control

Each melting Icecube wants to be a glazier
Each wave wants to be the smooth stroke of a forehead
Each cry wants to be a scream
Each carefully pressed suit wants to be creased
Each midnight frost  wants to be a snow drift
Each mother wants to be a friend
Each night time wants to strangle the day
Each wave wants to be tidal
Each subtext wants to be a title
Each winter wants to be the big freeze
Each summer wants to be a drought
Each polite disagreement wants to be a vicious denial
Each diplomatic smile wants to be a one fingered tribute to tact
Don’t you see how close we are to crashes and confusion,
Tempests and terror,  Mayhem and madness,
and All things out of control
Keep telling yourself.
You’ve got it covered.

REMEMBER HOW WE FORGOT

We don’t cram around the radio anymore
We have arrived at the multidimensional war
Where diplomats chew it up  spew it up
And we stand like orphans with empty cups
‘There will be no peace’ the press release
Said  that  war is on the increase
We  are being soaked with a potion
Massaged with  lotion to calm the commotion
That hides in  the embers of the fire
There’s nothing as quick as a liar
Don’t you learn your lesson
Are you so effervescent that
When they say day is day and its dark in your window
You say ‘ok’ and listen more tomorrow?

Seems you heard the trigger word
Are you space to be replaced – dreams defaced
Heavy questions  quickly sink
Leaving no trace – a spiked drink
What kind of trip are you on
Don’t you remember the last one?
Remember how we forgot about Vietnam,
Afghanistan, will you fall or stand
For a dream you haven’t seen?
I’m afraid you will, you have taken the pill
And you are totally stoned on war.

Media Hype and the slogans they write
Is that all it takes to set you alight
There’s nothing better than a doped up mind
For a young unemployed man to sign up
Figures go down young men sign up
What better when losing votes than to erupt
Into the uniting sound of war fever
“We need unity now – more than ever…
We shall only attack to defend…”
Paranoia infiltrates…
“Are you one of us or one of them!”
Slogans fall like hard rain as government calls
For someone somewhere in some country
That is suddenly so vital to our history
More than ever we should pull together
These are the days of stormy weather
Patriots show  faces, nationalists recruit places
As the fear of the foreigner rises
The race attack count arises
Victims of the small island mentality
England is no mother country
He holds the fear of the Awakening
Of his shivering shores breaking
Like the those in the Middle East did
When he raped it –
will you take it – take this, without question
Fall in line with the press poet or politician
Remember how we forgot about Vietnam,
Afghanistan. Will you fall or stand
For a dream you haven’t seen.
I’m afraid you will, you’ve taken the pill
You are totally stoned on war.

Design Indaba magazine, 1 August 2009