Street Art and the expression of many voices

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Walking through Cape Town, there are hidden gems, walls become canvases and blocks of colour break the monotony of the bricks.

Street art is not unique to the city – it is, in fact, a worldwide phenomenon – but the stories that are mixed into the paint are.

Towering over Philippi, spanning about 360 square metres and using about 120 litres of paint, is one of Cape Town’s newest murals.

The Ubuntu mural, part of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa’s (OSF-SA’s) Covid-19 awareness campaign, was produced by local artist Nadia Fisher, who goes by Nardstar*, who used the silos that stand above Philippi as her canvas.

© Provided by Daily Maverick Ubuntu by Nardstar*. Image: Supplied by Open Society Foundation for South Africa

The purpose of public art, according to Alexandre Tilmans, the founder of non-profit art organisation BazArt, is to create engagement and dialogue with the public.

“When painting a mural, street artists will consider the owner of the wall, the neighbours, the wider public, so that their message and artwork is appreciated widely,” he explains.

“I love the fact that once painted the mural belongs no longer to the artist but to the public. The artist needs to have a great understanding of the area where he/she is painting to make sure his/her message is understood by a wide audience. When the message is well received the mural will remain for very long.”

The result left behind is murals that belong intrinsically to the communities that they are in. While they are birthed from the artist, they live on in and form part of the space they occupy. “When I’m painting in a community, for that period that I’m there, I become part of the community,” Fisher echoes. “Especially with this kind of project, I’m very aware that this mural is going to be in their space, they are the ones who are going to look at it all the time.

“Painting on the streets is a whole experience. It’s more exciting, you’re outside, you never know what’s going to happen.”

© Provided by Daily Maverick Image: Supplied by Baz Art / IPAF
© Provided by Daily Maverick Mural by Bart Smates. Image: Supplied by Baz Art / IPAF
© Provided by Daily Maverick Mural by Pilpeled. Image: Supplied by Baz Art / IPAF

In a time of physical distancing and isolation, these connections may seem lost, but Fisher felt that this should not hamper community involvement. “We couldn’t really do like a big workshop, so we sent out questionnaires to ask people what their experiences were during the pandemic, the positives and the negatives, and then I used that feedback to incorporate into the concept of the mural,” she says.

The theme of ubuntu was resounding in the responses she received.

“Most of the community members spoke about how everybody was going through this struggle (of the pandemic) together, and as a result, they just started helping each other,” Fisher says.

The result is spectacular, bright colours that catch the eye from kilometres away as they adorn the grey, 22m silos, six faces looking out across Philippi with the word “UBUNTU” linking the figures together.

The mural pays homage to connection, resilience and hope, even when it was born out of definitive hardship. Fisher recalls how, in the winter Cape rains and wind, suspended on a cherry picker, the world below may have felt rather unhopeful. Aside from the pandemic, the process took place during Cape Town’s taxi violence and the tense context of the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal looting in July. 

“There was a lot of fear out there,” she remembers.

© Provided by Daily Maverick Mural by Care One Love in the Waterfront, Cape Town. Image: Supplied by Baz Art / IPAF
© Provided by Daily Maverick “We are Nature” mural by Anthea Missy in Cape Town for IPAF Festival with locals in Salt River, 2018. Image: Supplied by Baz Art / IPAF
© Provided by Daily Maverick Mural by Maye in Salt River. Image: Supplied by Baz Art / IPAF

Just as Nardstar*’s mural is a call to action against Covid-19, street art is often a form of activism, Tilmans says.

One mural in Salt River, originally completed as part of the International Public Arts Festivals (IPAF), has since been modified by a new artist, adding the Palestinian flag colours to the beads on a woman’s necklace.

“It wasn’t the intention of the original artwork, but residents and artists in the community felt the urge to communicate and revendicate their support to Palestine,” Tilmans explains.

© Provided by Daily Maverick Image: Supplied by Baz Art / IPAF

This is what makes street art truly unique; it lives on after the paint has dried, exposed to the elements, growing and evolving under new brushes and reflecting the community in which it sits – art in the eye of the beholder.

“With street art, once created, it is out of your control. You have taken it to the public, whereas with fine art, the public has to come to you. With work displayed in a gallery, the space is curated to fit your artwork. However, street art does not have this luxury; you have to curate your work to fit the space,” Tilmans says.

“Street art is a vehicle for stories, memories and interaction that the artist has had with the community before and while painting. Most murals are the result of stories and beautiful memories.” DM/ML

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