I’m wearing sunglasses. What are you doing for the community?by Montle Moorosi, images Andy Davis / 11.04.2011
It smells of shit everywhere it’s that all familiar hint of adverse poverty, the real scent of South Africa. Its 11am and the cups of beer are out already. My kind of people, but not really. There’s a row of wooden shacks, right in the middle of Woodstock, just off Gympie Street… and there I was thinking that shacks were only for the darker shade of poor.
A few seconds ago I was in a factory type space with an art gallery, some book stores and coffee shops serving hot ciabatta bread. Now I’m watching mangy dogs dying in front of me, tip toeing, doing a modern dance over a medley of sewage, broken bottles, broken dreams and, of course, that old chorus of used tampons and condoms.
Ricky Lee Gordon is a large man, he has brown hair which is cut close on the sides and the top part is combed backwards. A large art fag, I first thought when I met him at the Toffie Festival, but his silent demeanour bespoke a menace “an art fag who will fuck you up”. He isn’t fat but he isn’t exactly Henry Cele either. Around us are white walls filled with framed pictures, a television screen with flashing images of coloured children and Andy Davis dressed in a pair of blue and white striped pants, Camps Bay Auschwitz chic. Him and Ricky go off and chat in a corner while I take a look at the gallery. I steal a book… but I think its for free anyway, Southern Suburb gangster. A blonde girl walks in, Anthea Duce. Hug, chit chat, look intently in her eyes and then stare at my feet for approximately 15 seconds. She walks out. I watch her ass and silently fall in love again. I see a coloured man with missing teeth and milky red eyes, in a black leather bikers jacket, blue jeans, shoes hardly there, disintegrated. The coloured man talks to Ricky, and Ricky calls us over.
“Ok, lets go.” The tour of the art begins.
“Hi, Im Rashid.” He says as we set off in the drizzle.
“Monte… howzit man.”
“Aweh, im good bra.”
To my right in what looks like a car lot for old unused cars is a large iron eagle or falcon, some sort of imposing but beautiful sculpture, slightly terrifying too. As I move in closer I realise that it’s actually a painting done with spray paint, with amazing intricate line work in a dark metallic grey, which is why I thought it was a sculpture. I wasn’t high.
“That’s Dissident, Faith’s husband.” Says Ricky.
“The Chinese guy in the picture?”
“He’s great.” We all agree.
“The I ART SA Community Mural Project, a collaboration between A WORD OF ART and Adidas Originals, aims to promote and celebrate local artists, mural art and the original culture found within the communities we interact in. Starting in Woodstock and then moving on to Soweto, thirteen artists have been selected and assigned one wall per venue and will create public art to a brief, either I ART WOODSTOCK or I ART SOWETO” This is what the press package said, but haven’t artists like Faith and countless others been painting in Woodstock on their own volition for ages now? Ok some of them aren’t going around doing wheat pasties of rats copulating or pictures of Marilyn Monroe changing her douche, they just have cans and markers and no sponsorship or permission whatsoever. Is this Adidas sponsored art project the advance guard of gentrification? The first tentacle of capital?
“So Rashid, how did you get involved with this project?” Andy disrupts my revolutionary thought process.
“I’ve always been into art… I did that one over there, the one that says FREE PALESTINE… I saw Faith and Ricky here painting before, and I’d assist them with not being harassed by gangsters and thieves… you know.”
“So you’re the muscle?”
“No, not the muscle, more of an arbitrator, you know.” I wasn’t going to argue with him. Not a chance. Ricky then tells us a story about when he was painting one of the first murals while Rowan Pybus was shooting and that there were these two kids who kept watching them. Eventually Rowan got comfortable and forgot to lock the car. His R30 000 camera was stolen, and it contained pictures of the U2 concert, which somehow were more valuable than the camera. Rowan offered a R1000 reward for the flash drive alone, and within an hour Rasheed had returned with the camera and its memory. We come across a mural of a pitbull by Dathini Mzanyiya from the Gugulective, the iconic ghetto dog, the protector of the poor and not so weak.
At this point we’re confronted by a short man with scruffy hair, a gold tooth and a weary youngish face and we ask him for his time. It turns out he’s 41. He’s just been drinking black label quarts.
“So Sean, what do you think about all the art they’re doing here in Woodstock?”
“It’s more attracting… to.. err… it’s attracting to people… people come take pictures… it’s from nothing to richness you know.”
“Ja, cause usually outsiders who come to Woodstock only come here to buy drugs, you know.” Rashid adds. A slight man dressed in a black tracksuit and Air Jordans walks up and down the street watching us, always on his phone. He gets into his red BMW 318, circles the block and returns. He walks into a house opposite the shacks and walks out as quick as he got in and continues to slowly stroll up and down the row of shacks. A few minutes later another man, about 40 with gelled hair and a white hoodie and that all familiar Cape Town gangster walk; hands crossed behind the back, shoulders slunched forward, a white milky substance at the corners of his mouth. I suddenly realise that I’m wearing a thick gold chain. He says something to Rasheed none of us can hear or understand and quickly walks away.
“So Rashid what do you think about gentrification?”
“I think its going to benefit the community as a whole, it’s changing the mind focus from gangsterism and drugs to something different that the kids can be involved in.”
I thought about downtown Johannesburg and its inner city art projects, apartment blocks for the creatives amongst the illiterati; derelicts, bums, the semi-working class and immigrants. The Italian deli next to the Hungry Lion, across the road is a general surgeon and abortionist. The rye bread always beats the pap and mogudu.
Ricky jumps in, “look, I was hearing about how gentrification fucked up New York and Berlin, and it’s just going to be exactly the same… but I was recently talking to someone from the community while working on this project and they said ‘look if it means that someone’s going to buy my house, then I’m going to buy another house with an extra room for my kids…’ How do you stop gentrification if the community supports it? I’d love to stop the gentrification of Woodstock because this place will change irreversibly, but how do you do it unless some leader is orchestrating a massive urban planning project? And it really sucks because with gentrification you’re losing all the people and their culture.” Ricky looks kind of exasperated by his position. Stuck in the middle, a street artist with his own gallery, part of the first wave of Woodstock’s “urban renewal”, but not entirely comfortable with what that might mean for both the place and the community.
Have you ever seen a dog that’s been castrated trying to hump everything it sees? Legs, chair legs, other dogs, it keeps fucking and fucking but it never gets to cum. It’s the saddest thing I have ever seen. That’s gentrification. It kills nature and culture; that natural thing born out of a collective of people living and sharing experiences. It creates aesthetically pretty but sterile environments. However it’s important not to lump all the baggage of gentrification on a lowly urban art project. The art that is being made on the walls of Woodstock has had a beneficial effect, not just for artfags, but for the people who live in Woodstock. On a rudimentary level, their morning views don’t only consist of tik addicts and someone being raped, they can now enjoy it with the extra ambience of great artists like Mr Fuzz Slipperz and Boa Mistura from Madrid – encouraging the population to “fight for your dreams”. I’m being facetious here but no matter what anyone says about the dire social reality, the art does have an effect. It forces a reappraisal from both the residents and the more moneyed cultural activists it attracts. It facilitates these conversations around gentrification and development. The real culture and essence of Woodstock resides in the streets, and trying to move this culture from the street into galleries would be the first act of a willful exclusion of the community. Perhaps Andy Davis said it best. “Culture only really exists when there’s a real environment for it. Not some sweet saccharine bourgeois bullshit nuclear family, corporate advertising people who want to own coffee shops”
“I’d say about two thirds of Woodstock comes from District 6, and we don’t want to lose the culture and the heritage because this place has so much history, you know.” Rashid says. “The Woodstock developers say that within 20 years Woodstock will be the next Green Point.”
“But I think we should take a lesson from Berlin and New York.” Ricky picks up the thread. “Look, if the property developers and art galleries are gonna come in then they should keep the community in tact because the community is the culture… otherwise you can’t call yourself a cultural precinct… When you gentrify with one goal… for capital gain…” And he pauses and seems unable to cap the thought.
“I think there is a way to work within that, to stop and ask the community, what is the solution to preserve this culture? I don’t know and..sometimes I feel crap that I’ve been part of it and stayed on the fence… but then again street artists enjoy street life, they don’t wanna go buy groceries and get in their car, they wanna go across the road and talk to the guy on the corner and actually be in the street… and development will also destroy that.” Ricky adds. Smart guy.
We take a walk down the infamous Gympie street, it’s surprisingly empty, just a young mother and her child watching us from her porch as we take a picture of an old house with an amazing oversized tree taking up most of the tiny garden, making our own plans to develop the land.
“Ja fuck, how cool would it be if we bought this house and turned it into a little café?” Says Andy, that ol’ capitalism gleaming in his eyes.
“Or why don’t we have a Gympie Street amusement park with a tram that takes you up the street.” Ricky reacts.
“And you’d get a free hit of tik on your way up… after paying a cover charge of course.”
We stop by a house where Ricky and Rashid are trying to get permission to paint in future, the owner of the house, an Imam, agrees but expressly forbids any pictures of “animals or faces” because as he says “I’m an old school muslim… cause I’m old.” Next to that house is Rashid’s painting of “Free Palestine”.
“So Rasheed, Ricky, can I ask you guys something that might be a bit thouchy?” Says Andy, he doesn’t wait for them to agree. “Ricky, are you Jewish? Cause I’m Jewish, and Rasheed you’re Muslim? So how does that work?”
“I believe in love you see.” Says Rashid, as he sets sail on a long diatribe about how people are just people and if we respect our humanity and treat each other with love and respect we can resolve any issues and ends with: “I used to date a girl who was in the Israeli army…”
“We’re ambassadors for peace!” Laughs Andy.
Ok…so the art does generate debate… and not only that, but it brings people into the environment, who on a normal occasion, would never think to visit Woodstock. But at the community braai launch event, there was was a sea of white bodies in slim fit jeans, vans sneakers and checkered shirts. We danced the night away to ou Kaapse music, giving the toothless percussionists high fives. Life was great, we were famous, and I really felt good about buying a boerewors roll and a cup of Cream Soda Jive for just R1.50… R1.50 for a cup of Jive. I fucking love Woodstock. We danced with the gangsters and the old drunk women buzzing on Grandpa sachets and a hard days work at a sewing factory. Gentrification all of a sudden didn’t seem that bad. I guess in the end it’s all about choosing who you want to go to bed with. If you sleep with the devil, obviously your cock is going to get 3rd degree burns. At least people like Rashid, Ricky Gordon and Anthea Duce are searching for some kind of “middle way” for gentrification to not screw over the culture and community of Woodstock?
Like: “Hey, I’m wearing sunglasses, what are you doing for the community?”
*All images © Andy Davis.