Best of 2012 | Lightning and Rainbowsby Paula Akugizibwe / Images by Rizqua Barnes and Kent Lingeveldt / 03.01.2013
Originally published 31 May 2012
It’s a long ride from the swanky swag of Cape Town’s Convention Centre to the gritty unaffectedness of the township of Philippi. We are in town for a conference on inequality. Thousands of words of analyses, mind-bending philosophies, but inequality doesn’t get much clearer than this trip.
I am in the networking zone, a sea of intellectual encounters, when I encounter Tunisian graffiti artist eL Seed. He’s carrying bags full of canisters, on his way to Philippi to do some street art. “We’re leaving right now, come!” eL Seed’s got this lightning-and-rainbows enthusiasm about his art. It’s contagious. I grab my bag.
The mood is edgy on the drive. The anti-gravitational thrill of sharing beauty, grounded by a discomfiting self-awareness steeped in the pungent scent of privilege, the space from which we operate. eL Seed is grappling with the contradiction. “Do you think they’ll be offended?” He asks me. “Like, who does this guy think he is, that he can just walk into our community and do his art?”
I want to say no. No, of course not, a thing of art is a thing of beauty, a gift from the heart is never misplaced. But who am I to say? We are bringing art and asking nothing in return except that most sacred incorporeal asset – personal space.
“I don’t know,” I tell him. “You’ve linked up with people in the hood; I think that’s the important thing… ?” The question mark. It lingers uncomfortably through the rest of the drive. The politics of ‘giving’ are not for the ‘giver’ to decide.
The township of Philippi was established as a residential zone by South Africa’s apartheid government in the 80s. It was one of the final mass relocations of black people to the distant outskirts of Cape Town. Three decades later, government policies have shifted, but foundational geopolitics remain cemented in the country’s economic and social architecture. The place we are going today used to be a rubble dump for the Philippi area. Now twenty thousand people call it home – Sweet Home, to be precise, is its name.
We leave the car by the main road and follow a meandering path through tin structures until we find ourselves at the Sweet Home community centre. The management receives us without fuss, then leads us to the wall they would like painted. It’s opposite a spaza shop emblazoned with Coca-Cola logos, aptly named Western Breeze; and next to an empty plot of land in which a beautiful dark horse paces, tethered to the pole of a broken gate. Everywhere electric wires hang low, like a messy spider-web.
eL Seed gets painting. Passer-bys join him in preparing a background, and less than an hour later, a dull beige wall is transformed into a vertical array of bold colours. And then the calligraphy begins in Arabic, the visually sumptuous language of his art.
Meanwhile the horse, evidently weary of a life in captivity, seizes this moment to make her escape. A child sounds an alarm and our attention is suddenly pulled from the wall towards the sight of the horse trotting away, an untethered rope bumping uselessly through the dust behind her as she makes a run for the highway. Her watchers leap into hot pursuit, and a few minutes later she is sullenly led back to her hitching station. Metaphors flash through my head.
Back at the wall, the progression of calligraphy is causing some excitement, and occasional spurts of hostility, when residents discover that el Seed is using Arabic.
One man confronts him. What do you want here? What is this thing you’re writing?
He grabs the sketchbook from which eL Seed is painting and wedges it down the front of his trousers, jiggling his pelvis daringly.
You want it? Come get it!
(“I think he had a crush on you,” Kent will tease on the ride home.)
eL Seed enters into a few minutes of negotiation, which mercifully do not end in crotch-searching. The book is returned and the art goes on.
But the politics of language persist. This is an insult, another passer-by exclaims, gesturing disdainfully at the wall. “Why doesn’t he write in English? I don’t like this Arabic thing.”
“But Arabic is what he knows,” I reply. “So that’s what he can share. How come you don’t like Arabic?”
He glares at me suspiciously. “You, who do you worship? God or Allah?”
“I don’t see the difference,” I venture cautiously.
“If you worship God,” his finger stabs towards the wall, “you can’t accept this.”
“But Allah is also God, in Islam?”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying! You’re a Muslim!”
“No I’m not a Muslim, but I’m also not a Christian.”
“For me!” He beats his chest. “I am a Christian. So this is an insult, for me. He must write in English.”
English. English. A history of insult to the African spirit. The yokes we embrace. The walls we build and wars we fight over languages and gods that are not our own.
“The fact that I
am writing to you
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else”
– Gustavo Perez Firmat
He eventually leaves, calmed down by a friend who remains behind in the group of observers, absorbing the scene with visible amusement. “I like this,” he says. “Even if I don’t speak the language. I know what it means. When I walk past I can say, oh, this is something nice to look at.”
A few days later I speak with Forrest, a local resident who organised the painting with el Seed. He tells me he is concerned about the progress of development. “I don’t fight for myself as an individual,” Forrest says, “I fight for the community.” He is matter-of-fact, not interested in the politics. I ask him if he thinks art is an important part of the community’s development. “Yes,” he responds immediately. “Those children who were playing football outside need jerseys. There is this other wall we want painted. Whoever can contribute something, they should come.”
Not everyone is convinced. A sister approaches me, sceptical without animosity. “How does this help us? she asks. We need jobs.”
I am silent.
“I’m here every day – you see all of us here, we have no employment. The politicians are always talking about jobs. Every time they want your vote, they come, they say they will give you a job, they will give you a house, they will give you water.”
She counts them off on her fingers, an infinite bouquet of bullshit promises.
“We have a lot of problems here, she says, staring at the wall.”
I nod and we stand in silence for a little while, watching the painting, then she asks me where we’re from. I run through the nationalities of our small group – Tunisia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa.
“Tunisia.” Her brow furrows. “Where is that?”
“North Africa, in the West. Actually, they’ve also had big problems with unemployment and the government. There was a revolution there last year.”
She glances at me briefly now. What happened?
“Well, people organised a campaign against the government, they took to the streets and removed the president from power.”
“And it’s better for them now?”
I hesitate. I want to say yes – or what’s the point of the story? What’s the point of that dream, that drug, that theatre, that therapy, that elusive release that we all crave so much, that moment called Revolution? I think of the few articles on Tunisia that I’ve seen recently, and remember words like ‘violence’ and ‘intolerance’ and ‘ignored’. Reality. How anti-climactic. “To be honest, I’m not very sure,” I tell her, “but eish – let’s hope!” Shrug. A fake inflection creeps into my voice, trying its best to make my doubt sound more optimistic. Hope. What an analgesic.
She says nothing. We turn back to the wall.
As eL Seed is putting the final touches on the painting, the sun edges through the clouds, casting the exquisitely etched words into layers of light and shadow:
“It seems impossible, until it is done.”
*Check out eL Seed’s website here.
**Images © Paula Akugizibwe, Rizqua Barnes and Kent Lingeveldt.