A young man is building a shack. He and his classmates have been wandering the streets of Port Elizabeth’s Walmer township collecting discarded materials to use. Their workspace is crowded but jovial. When they are not building, they are drawing, sculpting and generally having fun.
The young man in question is Phumlani Dwane and he is the loudest of them all.
He is 17 but he looks about 10. Perhaps it’s the shoes that are at least two sizes to small, or maybe it is how skinny he is. He is brusque and aggressive, but when he talks about art, his voice becomes soft.
“I’ve received no support from my family,” he says. “They are always questioning why I am doing art, and I am going to prove them wrong.” Dwane doesn’t want to be just any artist; he wants to be the best.
“I saw his art and I saw that he could draw. I can draw but he draws better,” he responds when asked how he came to attend Banele Njadayi’s art class. His high school does not offer art as a subject, but at the Masifunde Learner Development Centre in Walmer, he not only found art classes, he found Njadayi and his band of lost boys.
Tall, with a pair of neat square spectacles and an ironed shirt, Njadayi radiates authority, although the paint stains on his pants and his sneakers diminish it somewhat. Originally from Grahamstown, Njadayi has been living in Port Elizabeth for some time and working in Walmer.
He runs his studio classroom on a trust basis. His students do all the work in their free time, and have been working with their teacher and artist Bamanye Ngxale on a project coordinated by the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (Vansa) called 2014 Ways of Being Here. Within it are five projects across South Africa that aim to produce art that speaks to ideas of democracy in its multiple forms and facilitate discussions about issues of citizenship and belonging in South Africa, according to Vansa’s Gcobisa Ndimande.
When Njadayi and Ngxale were approached by Vansa, there was a perfect synergy between the work Njadayi was already doing in the community and what Vansa wanted to investigate with the project. Yet when The Con asks these young men about the project, they become awkwardly silent. It could be that having an outsider in their space is disconcerting. When The Con sits down to interview them, all the fun and playfulness disappears, and it becomes clear they are uncomfortable and shy.
During the interview, Njadayi does his best to probe them about what they think about the project. Njadayi is their teacher, but he talks with them as an older brother. This is not lost on him. “Their parents see me as their kids’ mentor,” he says, but even he has little luck coaxing answers out of them.
Do these young men think their art is political? Their eyes respond with horror.
Lunika Lwando, 18, says the project speaks about what happens in the township, “about the life we are living”.
The predecessor to the 2014 Ways project was called 2010 Reasons to Live in a Small Town, and a number of the smaller projects under this project included children. One of the projects was run in Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal, by artist Vaughn Sadie and writer Neil Coppen, and involved schoolchildren creating collages from historical images of Dundee’s past.
At one point in the project, Sadie and Coppen found themselves challenged. The artists wanted the art to be only visual, but the students persistently wrote speech bubbles and words on their collages. Sadie says he learnt an important lesson from the experience about facing resistance to a concept. “If I’m not learning, I’m not facilitating well,” says Sadie. “I’m just assuming and gathering information, and not giving back.”
Sadie is quick to point out that Njadayi is in a different position. His being part of the community means he won’t necessarily fall into one of the biggest criticisms of similar community art projects. “You have projects where people just parachute in and leave with the communities, particularly children, having little to show for it,” says Sadie.
He is openly cynical about some of the intentions behind projects that aim to empower communities. “Let’s just say that it looks nice to say that you are working with children, but you have to work hard at it,” he says, also noting the issue of students losing interest in the project. In his Dundee project, part of his learning curve involved trying to make the experience worthwhile.
Njadayi has a lot of expectations to manage. Working with children means also working with their guardians and getting permission letters. Here, Njadayi’s position as an established teacher within the community was a major boon. The parents were very willing to get their children involved. “These parents see me as someone who will give their children many opportunities,” he says, clutching his own infant child, Pablo. When drafting the permission letters, Njadayi and Ngxale took care to highlight how the project would benefit the students.
The project’s scope stretches beyond Walmer. Njadayi and Ngxale connect their project to the Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth’s New Brighton township. For the pair, the ongoing dispute between the local government and the Red Location community is a common South African story.
Born out of the apartheid-era forced removals, New Brighton served as a hotbed for politics. Its history was intended to be memorialised through the creation of a multimillion-rand museum complex right in the middle of the township. But for years, residents had been in dispute with the local government over poorly constructed housing, and despite frequent promises, very little had been done by 2013 when the museum was occupied by the community, which closed down the site as collateral for government’s unkept promises. They are still waiting for better housing.
Ngxale points to the myth making the museum embodied, often focusing on political parties but not on the lived experience of the community. The stories of the Red Location community are a key part of Njadayi and Ngxale’s project. The shack installation will come with a video containing interviews with the older Red Location generation.
Njadayi’s students are encouraged to ask about the history of the community, but also to enquire about anything else they want to know. Ngxale hopes the project will teach the students interviewing skills, and encourage conceptual thinking about art and life.
Sadie refers to this kind of phenomenon as “soft skilling, that unmeasurable thing … There’s a type of thinking that’s not taught in school that somehow starts to become embedded in a context,” he explains. He emphasises that age is a huge factor in determining how much critical thinking is encouraged, and says that if the process becomes too academic, it alienates the students.
Some 130km from Port Elizabeth lies Njadayi’s hometown of Grahamstown, which has its own community art programmes for young South Africans. Madelize van der Merwe is a teacher at the Johan Carinus Art School, and works as a facilitator for the Raphael Centre’s art workshops for local children.
Unlike the high school students at Carinus, the children she works with at Raphael are less critical. “Many of them were very shy when we started,” she says. “There was a language barrier as they primarily spoke isiXhosa, but I had a translator to help me bridge that divide.”
Van der Merwe’s participants mainly use art as a kind of therapy, and as a way to explore themselves. She was impressed when she heard about Njadayi’s work as part of the Vansa project. “That sounds like such amazing work. I think that growing artists within communities is so important,” she says. “I can tell you that the work the Raphael Centre does offers many of these children the opportunity to do things that aren’t available to them at school.”
But beyond projects such as these, what happens to kids at the Raphael Centre, and kids like Dwane Will he be able to follow his dreams of becoming an artist? Njadayi says the kids in his class gain experience and exposure while developing skills and expanding their thinking about the arts. “Plus they get the opportunity to work with me full time in my studio,” he says.
Seeing how Njadayi’s students devote their time and energy suggests he imparts a lot of passion. Dwane is determined to follow his dreams. “The project will open doors, and people will see our talent. Everyone will see our talent,” he says.
Pic Credit: Banele Njadayi and his students scour the Walmer township looking for found materials to make model shacks: Courtesy of Njadayi
This piece was produced as part of The Con’s partnership with the Visual Arts Network of South Africa for the 2014 Ways of Being Here project