ARTISTS CHANGING REALITY
Public art paints a sad picture of a neglected suburb
The artists of District Six, the most famous neighbourhood in Cape Town, tell its fractured story, writes Valeria Geselev
The most famous neighbourhood in Cape Town has no threads linking its disparate parts. Buildings in District Six look very different from each other; huge empty fields of wild grass prevent the puzzle from being completed; there is no continuity and no centre, only fragments.
There are students’ residencies here, old rows of Victorian houses there, a mosque, a school, improvised shacks and clubs. The campus of Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) is a collection of scattered buildings. There is no glue to unite the suburb.
This makes it a challenge to show District Six to a first-time visitor. There are few traces left of the forced removals of black people from the area during apartheid.
But, there is public art in the suburb and artists are the best story tellers. So I present the following itinerary:
Corner of Tennant Street and Sir Lowry Road.
What looks like a standard road sign on the busy junction at the Good Hope Centre — with an arrow directing people to District Six — is the most powerful public artwork in Cape Town.
The sign, which used to point to Zonnebloem, is Haroon Gunn-Salie’s conceptual intervention in 2013, Renaming Zonnebloem. The young artist addressed the whitewashing of the area’s iconic name to Zonnebloem by the city authorities.
Instead of writing letters of complaint to the municipality or starting a petition, he went to the sign and corrected it. He printed vinyl stickers with the name "District Six" and pasted them across Zonnebloem on several road signs.
Three years after his intervention, most of Gunn-Salie’s amended signs are still up — he used the same font, size and colour as legitimate municipal signs. He successfully inserted a reference from history into the present, with artwork camouflaged as everyday objects.
One block up Tennant Street, on the corner of Keizersgracht Street, is a comic attempt to
regulate such interventions.
Another road sign, renamed with a Zonnebloem vinyl sticker, covers Gunn-Salie’s work. The new sticker uses a smaller font than the municipality does, and looks fake.
The shell of building standing next to an empty field where District Six houses were flattened, used to be a (CPUT) e-learning centre.
In 2016, it was burnt down during the #FeesMustFall protests. A walk around, it reveals a series of posters depicting scenes and faces from the old days of District Six.
Like ghosts, accompanied by the wild wind, faces of youth and adults gaze from the walls surrounded by photographs of street signs before the forced removals. They are all printed in black and white, a romanticised archive of the community that lived here not too long ago.
These were pasted on the shell of the building recently as part of the Art in Public Places project of the District Six
Museum to commemorate 51 years of the declaration of the area as whites-only.
The posters were created from the museum’s archive by participants in a series of five photography and street art workshops, facilitated by local artist Scott Eric Williams. The exhibition is now on show for an indefinite time — as long as weather, passersby, the city or the university allows.
The museum plans to develop more layers to the pop-up street exhibition with first-year CPUT students turning the abandoned buildings into an open outdoor archives representing stories of displacement, open 24/7 for free and for all.
This is the current border of gentrification in the area, with plenty of trendy coffee shops with WiFi and sophisticated decor. To suit the wannabe downtown, there are a few beautifying murals, full of colours and empty of politics.
One depicts a child-like painting of a ship on a sea with a smiling sailor and yellow sun. A closer look reveals a stencil text warning "DeHumanisation Zone". It is cleverly placed to look like the title of the mural, turning its meaning upside down into a cynical and critical artwork.
This small yet effective stencil is the work of Tokolos Stencils Collective, anonymous street artists who tackle the exclusion of the poor from central suburbs — creatively protesting against the contemporary version of forced removals.
What is shared at all the public sites in this imaginary tour is their sense of sadness. Haroon’s and Scott’s interventions serve as agents of connecting the history with the present, while Tokolos are commenting critically on the contemporary politics and economy.
They all are equally depressing. The artists remind viewers that District Six is a captive of its historical trauma and, until there is a structural or spiritual resolution, the current Zonnebloem is denied an opportunity to move on.
The University of Cape Town’s Prof Nick Shepherd suggests that the vacant fields are the monuments of District Six. In the archival photographs, they were crammed with
houses and life.
When a piece of land so close to a city centre stands empty, it contradicts the capitalist logic of "development". Strangers would struggle to understand why there are no buildings in such prime locations.
And that is exactly what turns them into powerful reminders of the history, which made even less sense.