Exploring Immersive Art in South Africa’s Cape Town

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Woodstock, the primary portal into Cape Town South Africa, has adopted many identities throughout the centuries. The Mother City’s oldest suburb has a beautiful location, sandwiched in a between Devil’s Peak and the ocean, although the view is now also dotted with warehouses and shipping containers.

It began in the mid-1800’s as a small fishing hamlet. During the British occupation of the Cape, the English left their influence in road names like Victoria and Albert and rows of brick terraced houses reminiscent of those in an English town. Despite various iterations of inhabitants Woodstock has always been a racially and religiously mixed community, a place where white, black and mixed race people, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side by side. While bulldozers destroyed its similarly diverse neighbor, District Six, during Apartheid, somehow Woodstock remained untouched and avoided forced removal of ethnic inhabitants.

Unfortunately, in recent decades, Woodstock earned an infamous reputation for crack houses, prostitution and crime. After undergoing gentrification in the past five years, it is now known as the creative center of Cape Town attractions, a haven for hipsters and home of the popular Neighborgoods Market where locals and visitors alike enjoy some of the city’s best culinary and artistic offerings.

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With the recent change, you can still find the dramatic contrasts of an area in transition. On weekends, you’ll see tourists and wealthy Cape Tonians flooding the trendy Old Biscuit Mill, eager to pursue designer boutiques, art galleries, antique shops and gourmet eateries – including the Test Kitchen, recently ranked as one of world’s top 50 restaurants.

Parking attendants run around, directing cars into tight spaces on side streets. Locals creatively try to distract people parked far away from their a beeline to the Old Biscuit Mill, with street performances and bold decorations outside small shops. Teenagers and younger kids pound on drums made of soda bottles and other recycled household containers. Across the street, a woman sits on a rainbow painted rusty car, blowing bubbles and proclaiming peace in love, hoping that fellow free spirits will drop a few bucks in her bucket. Another small, dusty shop explodes with wood with peeling paint, which the owner makes into rustic furniture and picture frames.

Usually, when people are deterred on their march to the market, they bypass this and veer into the safer-looking “Woodstock Co-op” where salespeople in skinny jeans and piercings invite customers to browse for second-hand clothes with European designer labels.

Dramatic Change

How did dramatic reinvention take place? When South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010, authorities tried cleaning up the area with hostels and accommodation for football fans. While that helped, Woodstock’s true transformation lagged a couple years behind the World Cup and is still underway. To understand the process, I wandered further down Albert Road, away from the swanky Saturday market to meet Juma, a man who inspired some of this change as co-founder of Word of Art Foundation. By inspiring artists to paint the side streets with murals, this foundation has helped make Woodstock a place people are proud to live.

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A Deeper Understanding

Juma met me at the Woodstock Exchange, an old factory that has been re-purposed into a modern, industrial space filled with cafes, art galleries and workshops and yes, many cycling hipsters. After a humble hello, Juma took me around the corner, through Side Street Studios which opened into a rainbow world of murals and graffiti. An Andy Warhol-esque rendition of Nelson Mandala smiled at me. Grey scale foxes chased each other the backside of the tall building blocking us from the main road. A parked motorcycle covered half of a ghoulish purple woman with a grisly tattoo who seemed to emanate barbed wire. Then, Juma began his story.

Juma came to Cape Town from Malawi but he quickly made this his home and wanted to make it a better place. He explained:

I feel like I belong everywhere, and I feel at home wherever I am. I’m passionate about people, no matter what their origins are or what kind of traditions they have.

Thus, when he noticed the crime and danger that riddled the neighborhood of Woodstock, he wanted to do something about it.

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Empowering A Community Through Art

Fortunately, Juma met Freddy Sam who had similar aspirations, in a transformative leadership class. Together, the two decided to empower the neighborhood and create social change through one of their deepest passions: street art. Juma loves how everyone can enjoy this non-discriminatory form of art. He explains, when he paints, what he creates is for everyone.

“That’s why I put art on the streets,” he smiles.

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Excited about this idea, Juma and Freddy Sam went door to door to describe the project get permission from the neighbors before any artist was allowed to paint. Obviously, the pair successfully secured permission because now the maze of side streets host over 40 murals.

Juma skillfully guided me around the neighborhood, which he now knows like the back of his hand, greeting local residents and sharing stories along the way. Internationally renowned artists come from as far as Canada, Ukraine and Israel to take residence within the community so they can get to know the area before producing a piece. The local influence is visible. One of the first pieces he shares is a tree whose branches wind around the house, with the names of the neighborhood kids who helped paint forming the base.

A Ukrainian artist urges viewers to protect endangered animals with an image of a man in a zebra suit in front the Devil’s Peak, with the real formation peeking out behind the wall.

Another piece wraps around a house, depicting busy streets with residents rushing around in traditional Islamic garb, capturing the energy he witnessed in the neighborhood.

Local artists leave their mark as well. Juma pointed out multiple works by Faith47, a famous female street artist whose whole family has created art in the vicinity. Her Chinese husband painted the grey scale wolves I saw leaping on the back of Side Street Studios and her 17-year-old son has multiple black and white cartoonish, lyrical pieces around Woodstock.

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Walking around the neighborhood with Juma, I still see signs of poverty but there’s something about bright colors and beautiful art that seems to fill the area with a contagious, buoyant optimism. Juma says the kids were especially excited to see the art going up and they loved to come “help” and touch the paint. Often, a student would see a new painting on his way home from school, tell his friend, who tells more friends, who tell their families.

Soon, families began devoting time to walking around, looking for something new. Juma reflects on how much has changed recently:

A lot of South Africans still think the area is dangerous and try to avoid it. But within the past fifteen years, I’ve witnessed a big change. The community is becoming proud of living here. Now people feel like it’s a good thing to be from Woodstock.

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When I express my amazement at what Juma has been able to do, he modestly dismisses my compliments, claiming he did not cause the change, just helped facilitate it.

In Cape Town, everyone wants to be creative. We just wanted to create an opportunity for people to be extra creative and now Woodstock is quickly becoming known as the creative corner of the city.

The Effects Of Gentrification

While this gentrification has brought countless benefits to the area, from increasing business, safety and creativity, the rising cost of real estate is making it difficult for the area’s original inhabitants to afford to stay. Woodstock has successfully navigated a changing identity before so it can again, but I hope the transformation does not complete destroy some of the natural gritty resiliency of the neighborhood and edgy diversity, I found in the side streets.

Since safety could potentially still be an issue in the neighborhood, I’d recommend booking a tour with Juma or someone else from the organization, which will also deepen your appreciation and understanding of what you see. This can be arranged by emailing him directly at juma.mkwela@gmail.com. A 1-hour tour costs around 200 Rand (~$15 USD).

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