Grahamstown is home to many things. A small university, a host of churches, The National Arts Festival, but most importantly, it is home to creativity. Recently, in an effort to tap into the city’s creative network and provide a year round artistic showcase, Grahamstown has seen the launch of the Creative City project. But with such blatant socio- economic disparities and such low levels of social cohesion, how can one project put Grahamstown on the map as South Africa’s creative capital? By walking the city’s streets and sitting down with a wide range of Grahamstown’s creative artists and practitioners, it becomes apparent that there are important conversations and ideas taking shape, just not at the same time.

Grahamstown lies in a natural bowl. To sit on a low lying hill on the edges of the city provides enough sight to view the other end of the city and everything in between. And what a sight it is.

To the West sits a prestigious university, a handful of well-patronised pubs and restaurants, private schools that attract children of wealthy parents, a small shopping complex, a high court, the Victorian-style offices of South Africa’s oldest independent newspaper, and a beautifully-crafted cathedral, all collected under the ever present gaze of a monument to the 1820 English settlers in the form of a great, hulking building, breaking into the hillside.

To the East lies an expansive township comprising more than 10 different wards and extensions collectively referred to as the Joza location. Here you will find spaza shops, butcheries, shebeens, government schools for the working class, community halls and dilapidated buildings. Service delivery is almost non-existent, and infrastructure is in a state of permanent disrepair.

Grahamstown from the Monument

Somewhere in between Grahamstown East and West, around Bathurst Street in the shadow of the cathedral, is an invisible line separating the two. The socio-economic divide broadens as you travel along Bathurst, leaving behind the furniture stores and historical Observatory museum approaching Dr Jacob Zuma Drive (although it’s still referred to as Raglan Road by most) with its informal hair salons and supply stores. White faces and well-maintained family vehicles fade away, making room for taxis and foot traffic transporting black faces to working class jobs. Here Grahamstown’s infamous potholes aspire to donga-sized interruptions in the road. There is litter windblown into cracks in the pavement, caked onto roadsides and unchecked for weeks. Here is where the reality of Grahamstown’s divided city settles in, and far reaching, persistent fault lines make themselves known, away from the distractions of suburban hideaways.

On either side of this invisible line, there is art and there is creativity. You don’t need to spend a long time in Grahamstown to know that creativity is a currency here. Only on the one side it is celebrated in hallowed halls and on the other, it is a form of survival. The National Arts Festival does well to promote Grahamstown’s creative community, but for a short 11 days a year. If underlying socioeconomic disparities are the subject at hand, then art should be the device that digs at the coalface, creating a community in conversation with itself and promoting sustainable solutions. What Grahamstown needs is something that sustains its creative capital year round and across the board.

Back West it’s a cool day up at the 1820 Settlers’ Monument. Co-founder of the Creative City project and National Arts Festival CEO Tony Lankester sits on a bench in front of the large building. Usually, Lankester can be found in his office in the basement of the Monument. Today he is outside, overlooking the city of Grahamstown.

“By any measure, there’s a stark divide. Politically and spatially, I mean you can see the lines right there, and we know why that’s the case,” Lankester begins, “the question is who gets to do something about it. People often look towards the National Arts Festival to fix everything, as if it’s a magic wand fuelled by the arts, but obviously the Festival only operates at a specific time in the year.”

Around the end of June every year, thousands of artists and art enthusiasts roll into Grahamstown for 11 days of art and celebration. Around this time it’s not uncommon for protests and strikes to kick up in Grahamstown East. With about 500 journalists at the Festival, it’s an opportunity to mainline some big-name media coverage into the daily economic inequalities of the city. It’s also an opportunity for artists in the township to earn a spot in the public eye or earn a quick buck through busking. Headlines roll and Grahamstown’s disparity circulates for a good few days after the Festival until everything falls back into place again – Grahamstown empties out and remains divided.

Bathurst Street, Grahamstown

What’s needed is a consistent source of creative stimulation; something that can keep Grahamstown on the map year round, highlighting and platforming all of its artistic enclaves. The answer, says Lankester, is to turn Grahamstown into the Creative City. About two years ago, Lankester and a few other NAF key players came up with the idea to bring together festivals, tourism bodies, arts NGOs, educational and government entities, and artists across all fields under a collective umbrella organisation to promote the creative community and ensure that public art events take place year round. Bankrolled by the European Union, Lankester and co. managed to kick-start the Creative City project and roll out a few projects such as Uyabona Ke? (striving towards economic and social upliftment through theatre), Fotofence (providing careers for aspirant photographers) and Masicule (gathering Grahamstown’s freshest voices on one stage). The project also launched the Makana Arts Academy that aims at upskilling and resourcing Grahamstown’s artists in order to help them turn their talent, skills and passion into a sustainable career.

“We needed some collective binding thing. Something that could capture and harness all of these things that people were creating and doing,” says Lankester, speaking out towards the Eastern Cape landscape. “Artists need to have a natural home here, they need to feel at home here so that they can practise and create their art and so that their work can be valued and affirmed.”

The dream, admits Lankester, is for Grahamstown to achieve the status of South Africa’s creative capital. Residents would be proud to live in such a vibrant, bustling hub of artistry. Just outside Grahamstown, a proud, bold sign would read “Welcome to the Creative City.”

“But first you have to start enabling the environment. We want a city where graffiti is welcome, where you can take an old power station and paint it in bright colours, and where buskers line every street so that this stuff can start seeping into the consciousness of the city,” he says before drawing a finger across the landscape and pointing it towards the outskirts of the township. “The big project is how to deal with the geographical divide and the fact that people from this side of town don’t go to that side of town and the people from that side of town only come to this side to shop or to work.” He drops his hand back down to rest on a leg and pauses. Then he finally adds, “And that’s probably the biggest problem that Grahamstown has.”

***

The walk down from the 1820 Settlers’ Monument through the university’s Drostdy Arch and out towards the township is made more meditative through Lankester’s lingering words — “Artists need to have a natural home here.” Straight down High Street with its buskers and street stalls, past the old cathedral, up Bathurst Street and a quick turn into the Queen Street taxi rank finds you just over the invisible line. Crudely-scrawled graffiti is spotted here and there on sunbaked walls with cheap, faded, hardware-store spray paint. The taxi ride is about 10 minutes if you factor in the stops and the occasional detours around donkey carts. The destination is a certain area in Extension 9, the polar opposite of the Monument, but still rich in art.

The dirt roads here rise and fall dramatically and are difficult to navigate by vehicle, but Kota Street is always buzzing. At first glance, it’s a sleepy area with its dusty streets lined with low-roofed, pastel-coloured houses. At night a small shebeen puts out Gospel music and loud, heavy Kwaito breakbeats interspersed with clinking glasses and spirited conversation. During the day the shebeen sleeps and the neighbouring house comes alive. Schoolchildren sing, dance and beat djembe drums. At least 30 of them, ranging from four to 16 years, show up every day to rehearse on the grassy patch out front or inside the cramped, one-room house.

Sakhuluntu djembe in mirror

Perched on the edge of a couch inside his home, his two hands cupped together beneath his flat cap, Vuyo Booi lights a cigarette and begins to explain why he started Sakhuluntu Cultural Group, an arts organisation that teaches young children traditional music, drama, and dance.

“I don’t need much, I am a simple man,” he says. The unpainted cement walls of his house are decorated with various Grahamstown event posters he has collected over the years. Three threadbare couches, one with a large hole in the seat, sit next to each other towards the back of the room. There is a gas tank on the floor for cooking and a small metal table in the centre of the room houses his food and other belongings. Outside, djembe drums and marimbas lie on the grass, while Sakhuluntu pupils play, practise their drumbeats, or catch up under the sun.

“I have been here all my life. I am a child of the ghetto,” he says. “I started Sakhuluntu in 1998 with a few fellow community activists, because we wanted to provide an alternative to the negative lifestyle that a lot of the kids in Joza grow up in. Living in the ghetto, there are people here that no longer have dreams or vision and you see that kind of frustration from people who don’t have work or who don’t have proper jobs and a good education.”

Booi ashes his cigarette and absentmindedly runs a hand over his stubbly cheek, down to his chin. “When they look at themselves they think there is nothing for them to do, but to smoke drugs, drink alcohol at the shebeens and have sex. This rubs off on the kids. They look up to these people who have lost hope, who have lost touch with their dreams and they imitate them,” he says.

Thinking back to friendships formed and lost in his own youth he says, “I saw some of the best artists lose touch with themselves,” he says. As youngsters, Booi and his friends would meet after school and sing, dance, rap, and perform for the other kids in their community.

“Some of my friends were women with the most beautiful voices and men with the wildest dance moves and they threw it all away. Talent burns brightly like that, but if it is thrown away or drowned with drink and drugs, it may never be reignited. I think that might be the saddest thing — to extinguish a fire as brightly as that and to lose it forever.”

Booi stubs out his cigarette and lifts his cap to push back his short, greying dreadlocks. “But that’s why we have Sakhuluntu,” he says with a smile, revealing the laughter lines around his eyes.

Booi is one of many individuals who care deeply for the wellbeing of Grahamstown’s youth growing up in the townships. With local schools having lacklustre or non-existent arts programmes, there’s not much to do for a child after school, and with Joza’s community halls sitting locked up year round, opening only for funerals and NGO visits, there’s not much room for recreation or creativity. For the children of Sakhuluntu, the only time their feet touch stages to the West of the invisible line is during the National Arts Festival. They perform sunset shows at the Monument or collaborate with visiting artists. About four times a year, Booi and Sakhuluntu will be invited to perform in the intimate amphitheatre of the International Library of African Music (ILAM).

Mr Madeli and Xolile Madinda in front of the Biko Bruce Lee mural

ILAM is a small building, tucked away in the university, behind password sealed electronic gates where it acts as an archive of African musical heritage and hosts lectures for students.

Inside ILAM you will find shelves packed with literature on the art of African music. On the walls and placed at strategic points throughout the rooms are old instruments – kalimbas, gourd flutes and mouth harps – some of which haven’t been played for decades. The building is something of an Eastern Cape treasure and was founded by Hugh Tracey who, 60 years ago, packed his bags and headed for East Africa with an old wax cylinder recorder. There he sampled unrecorded African music, mechanically etching notes into beeswax and shipping them back South to be archived. ILAM, like the Monument and the community halls, is tucked away and locked up for most of the year, despite its potential to funnel arts and education about African music to the Grahamstown community. It may contain some of the continent’s most prized and historic musical treasures, but for all its glory, it serves as a reminder to the type of inaccessible art that exists in Grahamstown’s upper echelons of creativity.

Just across the road from ILAM is the Rhodes University Drama Department that increasingly extends its facilities to the greater public, not through reputation or accessibility, but due to a select few in the department who are striving towards bridging divides.

In a quiet office on one of the top floors of the department sits Professor Alex Sutherland. Swinging a chair around to the side of her desk, Sutherland wastes no time in vocalising her thoughts on Grahamstown’s arts scene. Sutherland’s work has involved theatre workshops for the rehabilitation of prisoners through the Grahamstown Correctional Facility, working with high school students, and coaching local artists to in storytelling techniques.

“From the 50s in this country when black and white artists collaborated, there’s been a huge power difference in terms of who gets funding, who gets permits for spaces to perform work, and so we have a whole culture and history of black artists being dependent on white artists for recognition. That is very slowly changing, but I mean very slowly,” she says. “I think in more urbanised centres, there’s more diversity, there’s more audience, but in a kind of colonial space like Grahamstown, I think it just situates and fixates divisions more than opens up the possibility of democratisation of the arts. I mean isn’t that what Creative City is about? The democratisation of the arts and who participates?”

“The model of the Makana Drama Development Festival is something I quite like,” she explains, leaning back slightly. “It’s framed in a way that allows local artists who are experienced to facilitate younger artists, which doesn’t allow for that top-down sort of method of university students going into spaces, running a workshop and then leaving again.”

Towards the end of the year, the Rhodes University Drama Department plays host to the Ubom! Eastern Cape Drama Company’s Makana Drama Development Festival, a show divided into youth and senior programmes resulting in a day-long showcase for community-based arts in Grahamstown. This year, the winning show was a play called Choice by the Via Kasi Movers, a local pantsula crew turned theatre group, headed by community artist Ayanda Nondlwana. The play is set in Extension 10, a space of consistently-ignored protest, demanding adequate housing that was promised but never delivered. Extension 10 is located on the outskirts of Grahamstown where you find the kinds of social ills that come with a disregarded community.

Ayanda Nondlwana. Photo by Niamh Walsh- Vorster

On the main stage of the Rhodes Theatre, an in-character Nondlwana takes the stage in front of an audience comprised of local schoolchildren from Grahamstown East and fellow performers. He walks amidst cardboard cut-outs resembling corner stores and shebeens and begins. 

“All I’m saying is that there are better things to do with your time than drugs and crime, Your future lies in your own hands,” he says with a glance to the children in the audience. A few scenes later, and the same cast member is gunned down, lying in the arms of a friend. Music rises and lights fade away as the children in the front row erupt into laughter.

A few months earlier, Nondlwana was performing to larger audiences at the National Arts Festival and subsequently the Cape Town Fringe Festival in the award-winning show, Waterline – an example of how a Creative City project can be used to bring the city’s innovative spheres together to produce impactful and beneficial theatre. Directed by Rob Murray and supported by Creative City, Waterline is a satirical take on Grahamstown’s water outages. The show consists entirely of local performers, and draws much of its storytelling and content from the lived experiences of each member told through physical theatre, shrewd lighting, and beautiful mask work.

Ahead of their performances in Cape Town, cast members of Waterline filter into a rehearsal room on the top floor of the Rhodes University Drama Department. On the walls, thick blobs of Prestik hold up numerous sheets of paper marked with rehearsal schedules and crossed-out dates, counting down the days until their production goes to the Cape Town Fringe Festival.

It’s 9am, but Nondlwana has been up since 6, allowing himself enough time to get ready and catch a taxi to the rehearsal space. “It’s never early for us though,” he says, tossing a small soccer ball back and forth between his hands. Nondlwana has spent the last five years in the local arts scene, teaching pantsula and hosting theatre workshops to students of the Rhodes Drama Department and learners at local high schools. He’s easy going, the type of guy who’s equally comfortable on stage as he is scuffing up his All Stars on the dancefloor.

Nondlwana also highlights the tensions in his neighbourhood due to pursuing a career in the arts. Seeking a livelihood through art, common in elitist areas, is seen as exclusive by many in the township because of its proximity to white, Eurocentric spaces.

“You will wake up early, before everyone else and you will come to the university to teach a workshop or to rehearse or whatever, and then you will go home in the evening, exhausted, still having to cook and get some rest,” says Nondlwana. “Soon, neighbours or friends of yours will catch onto where you are going during the week and they will call you a ‘smartboy’ or say that you believe you are better than them, because you are coming to the university to practise your art. They don’t care to ask what it is that you are doing, and they don’t care to come and watch you perform, because they are bitter. They think you are benefitting by becoming more Western.”

It’s a clear day when Xolile Madinda pulls up outside the Rhodes University Drama Department in his old white Toyota blasting hip hop.

Usually clad in Chuck Taylors and an oversized dark green jacket, Madinda is soft at heart, but straightforward and unassuming in his approach to the arts in Grahamstown. He says that Grahamstown is a city that makes people believe they can make a living through art “Why? Because everyone says this is the city of arts. That alone traps people. If you’re living in the township and cannot work for the municipality or get another job, you learn a craft, not because you’re an artist, but because you are looking for a job,” he says, taking backroads and circumnavigating traffic as he drives. “So people will jump at opportunities that enter the township, but the things that happen in the township are either a project or charity so there’s no proper investment into what needs to happen there. If you invest, you’re actually changing the outlook which means there’s a sense of ownership, there’s a sense of a landscape that has changed, mentally and otherwise. We need to invest in our own community. If we invest in the arts, we are investing in something that can heal us.”

A Grahamstown local, well known rapper and community activist, Madinda founded the Fingo Festival in 2011. He also heads up the Around Hip Hop events that bring together local rappers and hip hop artists, young and old. Throughout the drive off campus, past the private girl’s school, over the invisible line and up Raglan Road, Madinda speaks about charity in Grahamstown East. He explains how university students, arts organisations, and NGOs pour into the township with hearts full of good intentions and pockets full of money to do a day’s worth of charity, only to depart, leaving no real, sustainable change.

“People are starting to realise that there is a divide, because people are asking questions. Why is it still like this after ’94? Why is there still no theatre in the townships?” asks Madinda, “There’s so much content that could be produced in townships by using that model of taking the situation and highlighting it, not just using it, but fixing it from within so that it blossoms outside. There is a lot of talent there, but the acknowledgment of that talent goes a different way, because either someone joins in to further their career or to try and support what’s going on in the townships and then they go, leaving no legacy behind, only question marks. It leaves people bitter.”

About midway between Raglan Road and the exit to the Makana District, you’ll find Fingo Village Square – a site of historical political protest, an abandoned government project turned artistic space, and more recently, home to the Fingo Festival. Running parallel to the National Arts Festival, the Fingo Festival officially began in 2011 as a way to shift focus onto the art that exists in the township spaces during the period of the National Arts Festival, which takes place primarily in the venues of the university campus and surrounding areas. In previous years, the Village Green – a site much frequented by festival goers due to its food and clothing stalls – was located on the Fiddler’s Green. This saw patrons of the festival moving either by car or by foot, from the university surrounds, up along African or New Street, onto the Green, and closer to crossing the invisible line. A few years ago, the Village Green was moved onto Rhodes University’s main sports field. The story goes that white middle-class festival goers grew concerned about the crime around the original site. Handbags were snatched, cars broken into, and word spread that the area was dangerous to traverse and so, the Village Green was moved, taking with it the much needed traffic into the broader Grahamstown community.

Madinda gears down a few metres before Fingo Square and turns into the parking area outside of a busy auto repairs shop – Madeli’s Radiators. Outside is a bright, sprawling mural, freshly painted.

He opens the car door and lets in the surrounding sounds. A young boy a few metres away revs up a quadbike engine, while his friends laugh and jump out of the way. Men discuss car prices and inquire about each other’s ongoings.. Madinda greets the owner of the auto shop, a short man in work overalls and a yellow hat, and walks towards the mural, a black and white image of Steve Biko, transposed onto the colourful body of Bruce Lee, poised and ready to fight. Out of one of the character’s hands erupts a small circle containing the Proudly South African symbol. A conceptual collaboration between Madinda and local musician Words Booi, the ‘Biko Bruce Lee’ mural was one of Madinda’s more personal projects.. Three days of paint-splattered overalls and relentless sun saw the piece finally come to life.

“I think this turned out well,” says Madinda walking back to the wall. “It’s only been up for a short while now, but people have been talking about it, man, people are recognising this mural.” Cars fill up the rest of the lot and people move in and out of the store as he speaks. On Raglan Road, taxis, cars, and foot traffic pass constantly. There is no doubt that the mural is in the public eye. 

Madinda’s vision is to paint the houses leading into Fingo Square, bright, vibrant colours to instil a greater pride in residents who he says currently only use their houses to sleep in at night, spending their days in town looking for work.

Kota Street, Extension 9

Having grown up around the corner from Fingo, Madinda knows the community intimately. He knows the divide better than anyone and speaks to it constantly, but without the hopeless outlook that most possess. Madinda may have previously channelled his love for Grahamstown into hip hop, but now it’s public art that’s taking centre stage in his life.

“For me, public art is about informing and re-informing, because it’s not as if people here don’t know about the negatives, but it’s a case of everyone wanting good lives, we all want our lives to be as good as we were told they could be. We’re all striving towards leading better lives so let’s start portraying that good around us instead of focusing on the negatives. We need to do what we can within the community to fix it from the inside. Yes, the government can help, but we need to take matters into our own hands. We have the power and authority, we don’t need to wait for someone to validate our space. As we were painting this mural, people who were walking past were taking pictures with their phones, taking selfies, promoting their community from the inside. That’s the kind of power I’m talking about. Art connects people.”

Madinda wanders off and a few mechanics who had sat smoking since his arrival begin to talk amongst themselves.

“I didn’t know Biko was also a martial artist,” says one.

“Hey he used to walk around Grahamstown you know. Ja really, Biko was here,” says the other.

“If he was here now, maybe he could teach you how to fight.”

“Ja, but I like this painting. You know my uncle knew Biko, hey?”

Grahamstown train tracks

Where there are train tracks, there is graffiti. Grahamstown’s old train tracks are meditative in their layout. You either walk on the sleepers, or have a tough time traversing the loose bits of gravel in between. The dividers are evenly-spaced, ensuring you walk a steady path and allowing your mind to wander into the surrounding spaces. For all of its small-town qualities, Grahamstown has a wealth of graffiti, and graffiti is a medium that pays no mindfulness towards Grahamstown’s fault lines, be they deep rooted or invisible.

A faded mural of the iconic image from the Sharpeville Massacre spreads across a wall to the entrance to Extension 9. In a dried-up canal running alongside the Fiddler’s Green are bright, sprawling letters and characters from travelling graffiti artists, usually painted through the night during the period of the National Arts Festival. On the Rhodes University campus you will find a host of freshly-sprayed and politically-motivated graffiti, executed throughout the year by frustrated, disempowered students, speaking back to a constricting colonial space that affords them no public voice. In many of the city’s abandoned buildings, there are disfigured faces with disproportionately wide eyes and toothy grins. They’re the work of Boda, another Grahamstown local and prolific graffiti writer. Much of his work began under a bridge a few short steps from the Grahamstown train station. It’s where most local graffiti writers practise shaky-handed tags and line work for the first time.

It’s dark and quiet under the old bridge, despite the time of day. Graffiti of all shapes and sizes line its walls, stretching up to the height of two stories before meeting the ceiling which sports a few small stalactites. Through the middle of the old bridge run two separate train tracks, leading to and from the train station itself, a building that for a number of years now, has been in a state of disrepair. Graffiti is entirely out of place in a space like this, but for those who walk through it to get to work, school, or travel into town, it is a place of public art. Grubz is another name you’ll be familiar with if you traverse these particular tracks. A Johannesburg-based writer, he often travels to Grahamstown and it was here that he first found his passion for graffiti.

“Graffiti isn’t all about art that looks appealing” he explains. “In Grahamstown, it’s so quiet here, but there are always people doing things. There is always creativity or something to be said about this place, whether it’s positive or negative. Graffiti has changed a lot in my life. It’s completely changed the way I see cities and landscapes and how we interact with them. In terms of art that can act as a voice for a discontent youth or generation, I think it’s the perfect medium.”

Grubz piece and character along the Grahamstown railway line

Grahamstown’s multifaceted, creative community exists in a closely knit, but deeply divided city. Artists and art practitioners alike are talking to the same themes, frustrations, and ideas about the so-called Creative City, but none of them are actually speaking to one another. Far from Extension 9, back along the winding train tracks, down Raglan Road with its donkey carts and spaza shops, past Fingo Square, over the invisible line and around the Rhodes University Drama Department, all the way up to a lone bench outside of the 1820 Settlers’ Monument, there’s room for thought and perspective. Lankester, with his elbows resting on the back of the bench, sits forward and clasps his hands together, squinting out at the city.

“Maybe they don’t know that the lines of communication are open. Maybe we need to start talking more to Grahamstown. I’m very aware that sitting in this building is incredibly alienating,” he says. “There’s a lot that needs to be fixed in Grahamstown and I don’t think any single artist or organisation can do it.

I think the grandest dream is to make heroes out of artists.” Lankester raises his head and leans back again.“If a child can go up to their parents and say, ‘Mom or dad, I want to be an artist when I grow up’ and for the parents to celebrate that and take pride in that, then we’ve done something right. When we appreciate our artists and value them, they will see that and appreciate themselves. Other people will see that and emulate them. Then people will appreciate art in this city more and things will start to change. But we’ve got a long way to go to get there.”

Certainly, Grahamstown does have a long way to go before becoming the country’s creative capital. The Creative City project is doing well to lay the groundwork for ongoing creative development, but it still exists on a largely inaccessible platform for many. There are people who are willing to talk, they just need to be heard. And if you ever want to take part in these conversations, you need only take a short walk.

Photographs:

Main photo: Remember Marikana graffiti – Dave Mann

Number One: Grahamstown a divided city, as seen from the Settlers’ Monument – Dave Mann

Take Two: The Bathurst Street class and race divide – Dave Mann

Threesome: Skaunthla djeme – Dave Mann

Fore!: Mr Madeli and Xolile Madinda in front of the Biko Bruce Lee mural – Dave Mann

A Fiver: Ayanda Nondlwana –  Niamh Walsh- Vorster

Pick-up Six: Kota Street, Extension 9 – Dave Mann

Magnificent Seven: Grahamstown train tracks – Dave Mann

Eight-ball: Grubz piece and character along the Grahamstown railway line – Dave Mann

 

 

 


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