African unicorn: Participants at AfrikaBurn in Tankwa Karoo in the Northern Cape stroll past a massive sculpture. The first event was in 2007 and is now limited to 13,000 people. Picture: SUPPLIED
African unicorn: Participants at AfrikaBurn in Tankwa Karoo in the Northern Cape stroll past a massive sculpture. The first event was in 2007 and is now limited to 13,000 people. Picture: SUPPLIED

The Burning Man philosophy of action was founded in the US in 1986 with an annual event in the Nevada desert, which now attracts 70,000 people. AfrikaBurn was formed in 2007 as a nonprofit company to co-ordinate the local event.

"AfrikaBurn is an open-source model. It is everybody’s town and it is defined by everybody," co-founder Monique Schiess explains.

"It is idealistic. It is in a rough, difficult and incredibly beautiful space, the desert and you have to bring everything you need to survive, you have to gift something. Everyone who attends leaves utterly exhausted, but an activism is woken up in them. It is an exercise in self-organisation, which is amazing."

The original founders of Burning Man were from the bohemian movement of San Francisco and acted from a basis of experimentation, play and idealism. A set of principles, built around "radical self-reliance" arose out of practice and action. And they were written down to define the event.

AfrikaBurn founders include Robert Weinek, founder of the defunct Bob’s Bar in Johannesburg, BlackLil who hosted avant garde MALparties and Paul Jorgensen who had a history with Burning Man.

A space is created for magic to happen. We provide the blank canvas, with minimal intervention except that we challenge everyone to do something, anything with bravery and play

The event became the largest regional Burning Man event in the world and is attended by the global Burning Man community with 30% of its participants coming from abroad.

"It really goes way beyond the founders. We were just facilitators. Humans have a tremendous impulse to work together and be creative. These are the archetypes that the Burn brings out," says Schiess. AfrikaBurn was started on a private nature reserve in the Tankwa Karoo in the Northern Cape. Organisers and volunteers build a temporary town on the site that acts as a gallery for large and mobile artworks.

The town plan consists of circles. The inner circle, 500m in diameter, is reserved for art and creative activations. There is a street network where people camp and participants create themed camps.

"A space is created for magic to happen. We provide the blank canvas, with minimal intervention except that we challenge everyone to do something, anything with bravery and play," says Schiess. "It is a fertile ground for invention, collaboration and a space of no judgment, where you can just try."

The first event in 2007 was attended by 1,000 people, many of whom encourage their children to attend. "We have a number of lovely kids who started coming to AfrikaBurn with their parents and are now in their twenties. They think the Burn is a normal way of life," says Schiess.

Attendance has grown and the annual event is now limited to 13,000 people. The growth has necessitated more rules and regulations, which is ironic as "the tap route of AfrikaBurn is in anarchy and challenging norms", Schiess explains

AfrikaBurn has an inclusivity committee that deals with potential barriers to entry and sponsors participation for marginalised groups. Participation is becoming increasingly diversified through collaboration with the Tankwa community who create art and performance works for the event..

Year-round programmes offer support for the Elandsvlei community, the karretjiemense of the greater Tankwa area, Middlepos and Matjiesrivier. AfrikaBurn has supported the Imizamo Yethu, Garden Route and Masiphumelele communities following devastating fires.

"We feel at home at AfrikaBurn. It resonates with a big part of our culture, not to be rigid in living life and to embrace the absurdity that lightens the grind of life," says Klinton Whitehead of the Khoisan community. "The elders think it is a strange and beautiful place filled with absurdity and wonder, a dreamlike environment manifested. They absolutely love the experience."

AfrikaBurn awards 40 unique creative projects, particularly giant sculptures and mutant vehicles for display at the event. White lion shaman and musician !Gubi, 90, will perform with his Kalahari family and long-time collaborator Pops Mohamed at the April event.

"Everyone who does something transforms the event. Putting up a tent for the first time, living without running water, building, burning a thing, doing a performance and being in a space of no judgment where you can just try catalyses mind-set changes," says Schiess.

The burning of an 18m tall effigy of multiple striding people called San Clan, will bring the event to a climax.

The sculpture symbolises community, unity and the Burn, "letting go of that which no longer serves you".

For some artists fire completes their artworks while others prefer to dismantle their pieces for re-use.

"People exercise self-organisation in the desert. Those collectives organise themselves back in town and do things. What I have seen done in the last 12 years is what keeps me involved," says Schiess.

Challenges AfrikaBurn has experienced in the past include the money-making "plug, play and profit camps", the extreme 110km dirt road to Tankwa Town, the terrible weather in 2012 and a Norovirus infection outbreak in 2017.

"In its essence, the whole event is an experiment. We are turning a whole lot of stuff on its head this year, to be true to the experiment and to make sure people don’t ever get too comfortable," Schiess says.

AfrikaBurn takes place from April 23 to 29. Tickets are available at AfrikaBurn.

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