by Ares Kalandides
Papi is an actor, a guide, a choreographer (I’m sure I forgot several other things) – and above all he is the chairman of the Diepsloot Art & Culture Network (A&CN). The shacks of the informal settlement cover the ground in all directions as far as the eye can see. Diepsloot is a vast informal settlement in the north of Johannesburg. The shacks are built from scraps of metal, wood and cardboard, kept together in the most adventurous methods. The tidy street-names seem quite absurd at the corners of dirt paths, where children play around with malodorous rivulets. It makes me laugh at planners: they can’t seem to do much here, but they’ve named the streets. The Diepsloot A&CN, assisted by Jennifer van den Busche (Sticky Situations), the curators David Hobbs and Markus Neustetter (The Trinity Sessions, s. recent blog here) worked on an art project for their neighbourhood. Together with the neighbouring school they wrote a poem, which became their basis of inspiration.
The poem was turned into a set of sculptures, against the coloured fence of the school, figures that have become a great hit among local children who climb on and play with them constantly. Only last week, a public arts performance, again based on the poem. Everything, from the costumes, to the choreography, the music and the story was created and performed by the artists of the network. For many people in the community, this has been a revelatory event. Gift, who played the butterfly in the performance says: “I am using this new visibility to create awareness for other albinos, this is our chance to come out”. “My role is to facilitate the process” explains Jennifer, “assist them to organize themselves, keep their books, prepare applications for grants or do the reporting”.
Jennifer has also been catalytic in putting together the WASSUP cooperative. WASSUP (Water, Amenities, Sanitation Services, Upgrading Program) is a community based programme that repairs and maintains communal ablution facilities in Diepsloot’s Extension 1, home to an estimated 50,000 people living in shacks. WASSUP was an initiative of Global Studio Johannesburg 2007-2009 when students proposed solutions to reduce the pollution of the Jukskei river that runs through the centre of Diepsloot. WASSUP, made up from community leaders and minority groups, is now maintaining a series of public toilets in the area, some of which have been decorated by the Diepsloot Art & Culture Network. Johannesburg Water provides sewage from the public booth, but WASSUP is responsible for the function of the booth itself.
One of the important centres of the township is the formalized taxi rank (s. recent blog entry here). Designed by the studio “26’10 South Architects” (Anne Graupner and Thorsten Deckler), it offers space and services for the taxis and the hawkers who sell their goods during the peak hours of traffic – from 4:30-7:00 in the morning and then again between 5:00 – 7:00 in the evening. Kgopa has helped organize the hawkers and represents their interests with the authorities: “We have very practical issues; the ladies need electricity to cook and water to wash”, he explained while I saw people sitting around and not selling. “The electricity box went bust this morning and nothing works. I got somebody to get it fixed”.
Both Jen, as a facilitator, and Papi, as an artist, insist that their doings is their profession – not volunteer work: they live from their work, their relations may be friendly and based on partnership, but they are professionals. “I live from my art and only from that” says Papi, while we’re passing his shack in Diepsloot, both crammed in the back seat of a taxi with 16 other people. It is only fair that we pay them both for the services, spending the day with me, making sure I get a glimpse of Diepsloot. There is a mix of pride, intelligence and talent that I find hard to reconcile with the living conditions I see around me. I am missing an important piece of the picture.
Public art performance in Diepsloot: