“Mommy, he’s trapped,” whispers a wide-eyed little girl, standing on the corner of Malcolm X Blvd and W 122nd St in Harlem, New York. A dreadlocked man, in a torn T-shirt and pants, slowly walks barefoot ahead of the girl, dragging a 25kg iron ball attached to a chain that connects to a pair of shackles around his ankles, hands and neck. “Yes, he is,” softly explains her mother. “That’s what they used to make slaves wear.” The girl nods, still baffled by the man wearing no shoes on this freezing, late autumn morning. “But, why does he still have them on?” A short pause follows as her mother searches for an explanation. “Well, maybe as a reminder, honey. We don’t have the chains any more, but many of us are still trapped.” The man, South African visual artist Vumelani Sibeko, continues his march, unaware of the mother and daughter, or much else outside of the pain and determination to continue realising an almost decade-long vision.

The performance – titled Where Is the New Key? – is a challenge. Physically, it is a great one for Sibeko, who will continue marching on from Harlem, catching the A train to High St station, Brooklyn, where he’ll proceed, crossing over the Brooklyn Bridge, coming to an end beside the African Burial Ground Memorial in Manhattan’s financial district. To the unwitting audience of passers-by, it is a challenge to reconsider the past and how it has carried through to the present. Central to this is Sibeko’s own past and the events that have led to him standing here today on the cold streets of Harlem.

Sibeko’s life changed the night he watched Athol Fugard’s existential masterpiece Sizwe Banzi Is Dead. Seated in a darkened Market Theatre in downtown Johannesburg in early 2012, Sibeko watched as the eponymous Banzi recited a letter to his wife, living across the South African border in Swaziland. In the letter, Banzi explained, faced with deportation and a loss of income for the family, for forgery purposes he had to take another man’s name. In essence, he had to forsake his previous identity. The play, written in 1972 at the brutal height of apartheid, is about freedom and human dignity in the face of oppression. It questions what it means to live and at what cost. For Sibeko, reflected in Banzi’s dilemma was his own life, and with that, a profound realisation. Vumelani Sibeko needed to die.

The following morning, as usual, Sibeko arrived at the call centre at 7am to begin the first of his 12-hour shifts of a four-day work cycle. But this morning was different. Instead of sitting down at his phone, Sibeko walked right past his desk and into the manager’s office to quit his job. He’d long been contemplating this, tired of leading two lives. He needed to accept what he’d long believed to be his calling, even if it came at the expense of a steady income. Like Banzi, he needed to shed his previous self to survive. Today was the day he would commit to life as an artist.

From that moment on, Sibeko has been on an unceasing journey towards some distant point, unsure where exactly it might be leading. He knew there was no longer a distinction between where his life ended and his art began, but he waited for his chance to truly test this. It eventually came on 2 April 2014, when he entered the United States, leaving JFK airport with little more than his backpack, some canvasses and a couple of paintbrushes. His plan, a project titled Get on the Bridge, was to experience life as a homeless person, living on the streets of New York and creating art as his sole means of survival. His intention was “to bridge cultures”, and the ultimate realisation of this vision was his performance of Where Is the New Key?.

 

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There are the sceptics, as well as concerned family and friends, who want and need to know why. What is the purpose of Get on the Bridge? These tend to become futile lines of inquiry upon meeting Sibeko. Instead of direct answers, he smiles and in his soft-spoken way, and presents a story of visions, ideas and moments that continue to lead him along his path. The best one can hope for is to assemble some kind of thread from Sibeko’s heap of experience. At present, it comes to a visible end with Where Is the New Key. Tracing it back, the thread seems to begin around 2005, in a courtyard in Palm Springs, just past Orange Farm, Johannesburg.

The vision first came to Sibeko in his sleep. It was an image of ball and chain. He awoke knowing what he had to do. With permission from a nearby homeowner, Sibeko went to work on a blank white wall in a courtyard near his house, painting roughly what he had seen in his sleep: a ball, attached to a chained ankle alongside the word “victims”, framed in a recurring stencilled image of Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness movement.

“This was a guy who died for what he stood for,” Sibeko explains, thinking back to the significance of including Biko in his mural. “He didn’t just talk about his principles; he lived them.”

This realisation sparked an idea for Sibeko, who began bringing groups of kids from nearby Soweto to paint the surrounding walls of the courtyard. He convinced several other artists to join, each handling their own set of children. Soon Sibeko assembled a weekly group of anywhere up to 10 artists and 50 kids in what had otherwise been an empty courtyard several months prior.

Sibeko idealises the freedom in art. In this sense, he saw a great power in sharing his practice. “Biko and the others, they didn’t go through what they went through for nothing. I’m reaping the fruits now, so why lie about it? I owe it to the next generation, to my son, that I pave the way for him and his friends.”

Embodied in this importance of recognising the past is a metaphor Sibeko’s fond of using: “We are like trees – you have to remember where you came from, to know who you are. Roots that go deeper suck more water.”

The recognition of Sibeko’s own roots would come to him late in life. Born Vumelani Buthelezi, at 18 he discovered that his was an adopted name, taken by his father, who, at age 8, had run away to Johannesburg. Sibeko’s father, escaping life as a farm labourer in the community of Vrede, Mpumalanga, came to Johannesburg seeking refuge among relatives and took their name to avoid arrest under apartheid pass laws. Following the extremely lengthy bureaucratic process, it took until 2008 for Vumelani to reclaim his rightful name – Sibeko.

At the time, married with a son and the recent addition of a daughter, Sibeko continued his weekly art practice with the kids, supporting his family through his job at the call centre. With his family name restored, this marked a period of relative peace for Sibeko, which would come to an end on the night of 22 November 2009.

The phone call came far too late. Sibeko’s three-year-old daughter, who’d been staying with her grandparents in Port Elizabeth, was very sick. He would later come to learn she’d been left under the care of a neighbour while the grandmother attended a day-long church event. Sibeko caught the earliest flight he could from Johannesburg, but, by the time he arrived, his daughter had died, and with her, a part of Sibeko died too.

“From then on, I just had no feeling, no fear,” he explains, five years to the day of her death. “For anything to be painful, it would have to amount to that. And nothing can.” Sibeko chose to channel this grief into a motivation to continue his work. He decided that whatever idea came to him, he would do everything in his power to execute it, keeping the pain of his experience as his motivation.

More so than ever before, Sibeko could feel the claustrophobia of the call centre. His headset began to resemble the chain of his mural, connected to the heavy weight of a constant stream of dialled-in complaints. This frustration building over the next two years would manifest in another vision. This time, though, the vision came to him as a performance.

 

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Sibeko waited until the morning of 16 June 2011, a day commemorating the youth who died in the 1976 Soweto Uprising. On that day, wearing little more than rags and a set of homemade shackles made with help from his father, Sibeko began the march from his studio at the Drill Hall in Johannesburg to the Hector Pieterson memorial in Orlando West, Soweto. Filled with a sense of loss, both for his daughter’s life and the many children who had given theirs for the struggle, Sibeko honoured their spirits.

The march, Sibeko’s first public performance, would garner little more than a mention in a local newspaper, The Sowetan. But for Sibeko it was something far more personal. “I felt someone had to do it,” he recalls, thinking back to the urge he felt at that time. “Because I had the idea, I just did it.”

Less than a year later, shortly following his resignation, Sibeko would take up the shackles once again, this time by request from a group of local and international art students wanting to film a documentary. The documentary presented an opportunity to create a bigger disturbance. It offered Sibeko a chance to spread his art to a wider audience, and with that, express the suffering in his life, that of the fictional Sizwe Banzi, and of the many still living under the painful legacies of apartheid. More than a performance, Sibeko saw this as a means to awaken the people, making them conscious of their roots and the invisible shackles of history.

The result was a 25-minute documentary, titled Somehow Different, that saw Sibeko collaborating with fellow artists Phumla Sithole and Cutting Keith. Together with Sibeko in his shackles, the group marched over the Nelson Mandela Bridge and into the Northern Johannesburg township of Alexandra, which had in recent months experienced xenophobic attacks against foreigners.

The impact of the performance stirred reactions of confusion and laughter from people unsure why a man in chains was walking through their neighbourhood. “They look like they are from jail, like they are prisoners,” observes a bystander in the documentary. Sibeko sensed this lack of understanding and was further disappointed about the handling of the documentary, which he felt failed to give him due creative credit.

Despite the poor public response, curators began paying attention to Sibeko. He soon received an invitation to display some of his work – in this instance, a series of photographs of trolleys, used and decorated by homeless people – at the prominent Johannesburg Art Gallery. It was on the eve of this exhibit that Sibeko received his most exciting opportunity to date. It was an offer to come to New York later that year, as part of a month-long artist’s residency programme run by Apex Art.

Sibeko arrived in New York in time to witness the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Barely off the plane, he found himself volunteering with a local aid organisation in Long Island. Witnessing the loss suffered by those at the hands of Sandy was humbling. Aside from the infectious and open artistic energy of New York, this experience would define the trip, proving instrumental in his future plans to return. When he wasn’t clearing rubble, Sibeko visited some local schools as part of the residency programme. Shanequa Green, a teacher at Middle School 254 in the Bronx, fondly recalls the experience of meeting Sibeko.

“He came into my room with his powerful story and engaging art, and the students were clamouring. They wouldn’t let him out the room. I gave him my email and said to keep in touch.”

Just more than a year later, he would do just that.

Sibeko was indelibly changed, and returned from New York to a different South Africa. The cracks in his society now appeared closer to craters. He wanted to continue making work that reached a broader public beyond South Africa’s elite ‘art world’. But the communities, such as those he tried to reach through his previous performances, weren’t so interested in what he had to say.

“I felt like I was in a bottle. I could see where I wanted to go but I couldn’t get there,” he says. “I felt limited, enclosed.”

He continued making art, trying to channel the inspiration from his trip to New York, but frustration with those around him grew. “When you say you’re an artist in South Africa, they think you’re a musician, because they don’t understand,” he observes. “But it’s not the youth’s fault; it’s the [lack of] support for the arts.”

In a country plagued by national crises ranging from education to health, art is not high on our nation’s list of priorities, which leaves artists like Sibeko frustrated by the lack of space given for the creation of a culture around art at all levels of society.

Sibeko finally realised the limitations of his freedom to practice art in South Africa, where it was a privilege instead of a right. Out of this feeling of desperation, the idea for Get on the Bridge began to form.

“I couldn’t wait for things to happen at home. I had to cross the bridge, which is why I’m here in New York. That was the idea behind Get on the Bridge: get on it, don’t be under it, cross it.”

Sibeko knew his message extended beyond South Africa. If anything, the imagery in his performance would carry far more weight overseas, where the memory of slavery was still raw, unlike South Africa, where the scar tissue left from apartheid made any history before the early 1900s too distant to recall.

“He wanted to communicate with the rest of the world,” explains Jabu Tshuma, who shared studio space with Sibeko during this time. “He wanted to show them [Americans] what he sees, how he feels and where he’s coming from, even if it meant living on the streets.”

“I was like, wait a minute. Have you thoughts about this?” says Green laughing, recalling Sibeko’s email.” I told him, if you’ve thought about this and gone about your day and this is still something heavy on your heart, then you have to move with that purpose.”

It was all Sibeko thought about. The encouragement from Tshuma, Green and others he had met on his first trip to New York was all the encouragement he needed. He booked his ticket.

It had been a week since Sibeko’s last human conversation. He might as well have been invisible as pedestrians streamed past the busy Union Square Park in downtown Manhattan, his temporary base in the city. For months, he simply existed, bouncing between Union Square, the subway, and a quiet bridge in a park in Brooklyn.

His greatest enemy was his stomach. Fighting for each meal, Sibeko found time to paint in the “moments of clarity between fits of hunger”. He mostly painted human figures using his favoured collage technique of integrating fabric into his paintings. His studio was wherever cops wouldn’t chase him away. On April 27, known to South Africans as Freedom Day, that place happened to be Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn.

Walking through the park that day, a middle-aged black woman named Angela Weusi stopped beside Sibeko to admire a bag he’d made from a coconut. She wanted to know how much he’d sell it for. “$50,” came the reply. “$50?” The coconut and other materials had cost less than $5 to make. Weusi laughed at the cheek.

“I told him, ‘How about we make a deal?’. You give me the bag and I’ll let you exhibit your work in my gallery,” says Weusi, who happened to be the owner of the Kalahari Gallery.

The interaction was Sibeko’s break, and the first of many serendipitous occurrences. It would also come to be a significant meeting for Weusi, who had recently lost her husband, the late Jitu Weusi, a prominent civil rights activist, educator and founder of the African American Teacher’s Association.

A few weeks later, on the anniversary of her husband’s death, Weusi asked Sibeko if he’d help her create a painting of Jitu in his collage-like style. She gathered a bunch of personal items of her husband’s, including clothes, ties and some of his badges. The result was a portrait Sibeko would reveal to Weusi at the exhibit in her gallery several weeks later.

“When I saw what he created at the show in front of a roomful of people, it was so the likeness and energy of my husband. I was tearful and so moved, as was everybody in the room. He never met my husband, never knew him, but somehow, he captured his energy.”

From that show, Sibeko received an offer of a place to stay and two invitations to exhibit his work. The first was to be part of a show titled Symbols of Spirits at Brooklyn Borough Hall, which the curator felt Sibeko seemed “well suited for” given his ability to “capture the essence of a man he’d never met”.

The other came from Jim Wintner. Sitting in his living room in Harlem – which doubles as his gallery space called Tikhonova & Wintner – Jim recalled that night, months ago, when he first encountered Sibeko.

“I was very much moved by his sense of confidence, vision and freedom, and his willingness to put all these things on the line for his beliefs,” says Wintner, adjusting his spectacles to observe Sibeko, who stands adjusting one of his own paintings that now permanently hangs on Wintner’s wall.

 

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The two are meeting to discuss the logistics for Where Is the New Key?. Sibeko feels the time is right for the performance, given the relationships he’s managed to form with various people in the arts community, including Wintner and his gallery, which will represent him for the performance.

“From the perspective of someone who lives here, I don’t know if Vumelani appreciates how exceptional his action, or performance, is. What he’ll be doing is a form of cultural colonisation. It’s usually the white people who do the colonising, not the black people.”

“Why y’all dressed like that?” shouts a stocky young man in the throes of his Black Friday shopping on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. “It ain’t the 1800s – why bring that shit up?” he asks, shoving his phone’s camera in Sibeko’s tired face.

Sibeko is unable to respond, but had predicted this reaction. “For a wound to be healed, it needs to be cleaned, and cleaning a wound hurts. But, it will never heal if you don’t clean it.”

A fellow bystander agrees in admonishment. “Don’t be ignorant. What you think Ferguson is?” The man sheepishly backs away as a freezing Sibeko continues towards the Brooklyn Bridge.

“It’s interesting to see him caught up in America at this crazy time,” Tshuma notes on the prescience of Sibeko’s vision, echoing Wintner’s earlier point about cultural colonisation. “Seeing him finally do this performance across the world, and doing it as someone from Africa, it’s powerful. It’s a paradigm shift of sorts.”

At about 4pm on that Black Friday, Sibeko reaches the African Burial Ground National Monument tucked under the towers of the financial district. Exhausted, he slouches his head, resting it on the ground. It’s hard to know what is going through his mind at this moment. Certainly, after the past six months leading up to this moment, everything that follows will be somehow different.

 

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