No Man’s Landby Rob Scher / 05.09.2013
They sit idly, the sole remnants of a time, albeit a brief one, when I ‘surfed’. Rusted metal lengths atop the Toyota’s chassis, my now decorative roof racks were recently called upon. “Hey bra, can you help transport a mattress?” An innocuous request, quickly granted to friend and artist, Haroon Gunn-Salie – preparing for his first Johannesburg show at the Stevenson Gallery. The faded Billabong-padded racks, navigating the streets of Newtown, were fast approaching their finest hour.
The racks come to rest beside a torn hole in a wall. The wall belongs to what was once the Johannesburg Bus Terminal – a carcass of Apartheid located in the centre of the city, right around the corner from Mary Fitzgerald Square. Stepping through the hole/entrance, we find ourselves as tiny figures within a coliseum of urban decay. A roof serving to protect the once highly ‘rustable’ busses of Johannesburg has long since fallen away, the only memory of its structure being the surrounding walls that enclose us and not even those are in great shape. Broken sections of brickwork spill their rubble into the massive courtyard sparsely populated by patches of grass, trash, and currently fourteen occupants.
“Howzit Alfred,” greets Haroon as a tall figure approaches. Alfred, a Zimbabwean immigrant first arriving in South Africa just over a decade ago, is the owner of the mattress we’ve come to pick up. “You reckon MDC has a chance today?” It’s the day of the elections and Alfred’s family remain back in Zimbabwe. “As long as Mugabe lives, Zanu-PF will rule,” he smiles with an air of resignation.
Alfred resides along with several other Zimbabweans and two South Africans in the few remaining sections of enclosed space left of the terminal. Once offices or toilet cubicles, they now serve as living quarters for those men like Alfred, stuck in limbo between a country offering nothing to return to and one already overburdened with its own share of problems.
Confused stares welcome us as we hoist the ‘well-used’ dusty rectangle of foam from its quarters. The mattress and by association its owner inform Haroon’s artwork, entitled ‘No Man’s Land’. Physically, the work takes the form of the mattress and a site-specific intervention of projected text onto one of the remaining facades. The title and projected text – ‘No Man’s Land’? With the ever present land question hanging like a grey cloud over our semblance of a ‘rainbow nation’ – spaces such as the Metropolitan Bus Depot come to epitomise the stilted progress that continues to plague us.
The flea-bitten cargo pulls up to a prime parking space square in front of the gallery’s front window. Panicked heels click out the front doors, greeting us. “Hi. Um, you’re not bringing ‘that’ straight in, are you?” gestures a somewhat mortified curator toward Alfred’s bed. Of course, the mattress was always to be part of the exhibit – it’s just the actual sight of it that wasn’t quite expected. “We’ll have to at least delouse it – for the sake of the other artworks.” We carry the mattress down into basement quarantine where it will await an odourless, chemical detoxing – the process not taking longer than half and hour (if only such a quick fix solution existed for all our problems).
Returning the following evening, Alfred and his mattress are present in the gallery. The juxtaposition, or at least the appeared one, of ‘No Man’s Land’ sparks conversation. Some may accuse Haroon of exploitation. Others may call it ‘edgy’ yet, Alfred stands before the work – proud to be associated and answer any questions relating to his circumstance. As someone mostly baffled by art, this is something I can understand – a response to a very real problem. A means of creating conversation in a space that really should be facing certain realities of our country head on. Haroon is not offering a solution, merely an attempt at hoisting our unsightly historical mattress from the basement.
*Last week No Man’s Land was recognised with a Merit award at the Sasol New Signatures art competition. A portion of the award money will be going to Alfred who will be using it for welding and forklift driving courses. Go see Alfred’s mattress at the Sasol New Signatures exhibition taking place at the Pretoria Art Museum which runs until 13 October 2013.
**Image credit: Stevenson Gallery.