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Free Durban Elephants

Still Free

by Samora Chapman / 21.09.2012

There are a of couple elephants in the Poison City living room. And if you’ve got a set of eyeballs on your dome, you must’ve seen them? They come in shades of purple and blue, and they’re hanging out in a ghetto near you. The intricate wheat pastes have been popping up on everything from electricity boxes to booming highways in the past few months. Tiny elephants like Black le Rats and huge mighty elephants – 10 feet tall – strolling the cityscape like they were at home on the African planes. Durban has always been a desert wasteland when it comes to street art. But that’s all changing, as the city’s first bonafide street artist is taking over. And he goes by the name Mook Lion.

The elephant project was obviously sparked as a reaction to the de-commission of Andries Botha’s sculptures in Warwick Triangle. In a way, the wheat pastes have set the elephants free all over the city, even though the sculptures are still shackled by the paranoid ANC administration, as a legal battle between the artist and the city ensues. The elephant wheat pastes are a metaphor for the emancipation of art in a system that does much to stifle the revolution.

Mook’s latest project was to curate a street art exhibition and ‘hang’ it in the streets for ordinary people, culture kids and high society alike. The exhibition was poignantly titled ‘Still Free’ and submissions were open to any artists looking for a platform to get up. All the artwork was black and white and was blown up to AO, then wheat pasted on the boundary wall of a building site on Anton Lembede Street. About 50 artworks were pasted up in all. Right at the bloodline of the CBD.

On Sunday, a decent crowd of about 60 socialites gathered on the sidewalk amidst the clatter of traffic, police sirens and the odd stumbling rogue (who pulled in for the free juice). Mook, the lanky gangster with paint-splashed hands, gave a speech about the significance of taking artwork out of the gallery and into the public domain.

During the speech, a drunk was hit by a taxi and left on the side of the road to moan. A few cars lingered at the robots listening in to the dialogue and musing at the strange gathering and the stark images. I poked my head into a car and asked: “What do you think about this art exhibition?” Two coloured ous stared back at me at a loss for words. “Huh? I dunno what this is,” came the response. It’s just incredible how art can be used to tear down the iron curtains that segregate society.

The very notion of a street art exhibition is a bit of a contradiction. An exhibition is exclusive to a degree and it takes place within the confines of a gallery. It is aimed at a specific audience; for instance the humans that drink lattés and listen to jazz music at the NSA while discussing the pros and cons of boycotting Woolworths. An exhibition is also driven by economic necessity. The price tags indicate the artists’ worth… count the zeros and watch my little eyes blaze.

By contrast, street art is something of a guerrilla art form that challenges traditional notions of art by skipping the gallery and the institutions that surround it and actively occupying space in the public domain alongside blaring advertisements and the multitude of other visual noise we are bombarded with every day. It challenges the exclusivity of the gallery and the notion that work has to be of a certain standard to be exhibited. With street art, anything goes. Whether it’s stencils, stickers, mosaics, fat cap tags or installations. The audience is everyone and anyone who chooses to take notice. I spent time in Berlin a few years ago, and every available surface was a canvas for a multi-layered masterpiece. Ever changing and evolving like a reflection of the world passing by. Even the Berlin wall was bombed to smithereens.

Mook comments: “I have found that many people believe that the most important role played by art is its power to communicate. A powerful artwork potentially creates a dialogue between the artist and the audience. Artwork in a gallery fulfils this role, but the audience is limited to those who take the time to visit the gallery. In this way, members of the public can relate to issues raised by the artists and potentially identify commonalities and common goals with the artists and each other. Modern cities are generally filled with wasted space with very little personal interest. Artwork has the potential to turn such negative spaces into vibrant areas of cultural interest. In this way a Street Art Exhibition could potentially bond the public to their environment.”

Durban is lagging miles behind sister cities Cape Town and Jozi in the street art revolution. But initiatives like this will hopefully put Poison City on the map and inspire young artists to venture out into the streets and make their statement.

Yet I digress, so let’s get back to the exhibition. The work itself was diverse and included many mediums from traditional fine art to cartoons, lino prints and photography. My personal favourites were portraits by Kevin Ngwenya and Siyanda Zincume. Billy Pineapples dropped some tasty social commentary and I loved the lino prints by Nosipha Msomi and Wonder Sangase – the medium really lending itself to big and bold black and white prints. Representing the photography faction was my man Sheldon Wins with an excellent shot titled Love Thy Neighbour, and some dodgy photo-merging by yours truly.

All in all, the Still Free exhibition was a great success. It challenged the notion that art belongs in a gallery, and brought the work into the public domain where it can be seen and interacted with by people who may not stroll into the mainstream galleries. The artists themselves were also forced out of the comfort of the studio and into the vibrant real world.

*But at the end of the day, the artwork is still free. We’re all starving artists and I got a hungry cave where my tummy should be. So give me a shout. My soul is worth a hundred bucks an hour.

*All images © Samora Chapman.

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