In Cape Town, Street Murals Are a Vital Part of the City’s Art Scene
Books were hard to come by in Apartheid South Africa—at least those seen by the government as too provocative or revolutionary. Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s Subway Art (1984), which tracked the timeline of street and graffiti art through the railways and roads of New York City, was one of those books. That’s a far cry from today’s Cape Town, where—with a younger generation of “Born Frees” whose earliest political memory was Nelson Mandela being elected president of South Africa—murals and street art are widespread across the city. They manifest a response to the relative dearth of opportunities for artists to show work, and an impulse toward political expression in a country whose democracy is so young.
A recent graduate of the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis Art School, Rory Emmett is one of that generation who was born into a relatively democratic world. He uses the city’s walls to unpack his identity as a mixed race man and to grapple with his country’s history. For his work Transcending, for instance, Emmett painted on land that previously housed historic protest murals when it was the diverse and multicultural suburb known as District Six—an area destroyed by the Apartheid government under its Group Areas Act.
The work, which won Emmett an award in 2015, is composed of 12 blocks of different colors, echoing the swatches that one would find in a local builder’s paint shop, that he then broke apart with a mallet, in effect referencing the Apartheid’s erasure of the district and resolving the fraught concept of racial “color.” “I’m trying to break away from all of these constructs,” Emmett says, “being a young man of ‘color’ classified as ‘colored’ in this context in South Africa.” The work invokes Emmett’s own biography—his father worked as a trade painter—as well as the historical role of the “color man,” one who prepared and mixed paint (a role typically occupied by black men), while its title refers to a quote from the esteemed Cape Town artist Peter Clarke: “The power of art lies in its ability to transcend the artist’s original intention.”
Another South African muralist and painter, Marti Lund hails from around the side of Table Mountain in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. Lund—who has painted murals in Canada and Mexico, as well as Cape Town, and draws inspiration from the works of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and the iconic American billboard and pop art painter James Rosenquist—evolved his painting practice into large-scale murals in order to make powerful political statements. Lund’s mural Humble Hands is a rendering of two cupped hands, outlined by a strong white line and surrounded by jigsaw-like patches of pastel blue, turquoise, green, yellow ochre, maroon, pink, and coral. They suggest the gesture of an unemployed South African begging for a few coins in a country that’s often cited as having one of the worst wealth gaps in the world.
Due to the lack of exhibition space in galleries and museums in Cape Town, Lund says, the walls in the suburbs of Kwa-Langa, Mitchells Plain, and the Central Business District (CBD) have become some of the most critical interfaces of artistic expression in the city. This is also due to the Apartheid hangover in which many citizens continue to feel awkward and unwelcome in galleries. It was only really in 1994 that Capetonians of any race were allowed to enter these spaces. David Koloane—a curator and one of the most respected voices in South Africa—spoke last year of the isolation of not being formally allowed into white galleries, and the experience of being followed through spaces by security guards in the 1980s. While these conditions have evolved and audiences have diversified, galleries are still often seen as intimidating “white cube” spaces in Cape Town, despite being free to enter.
Nevertheless many of the city’s murals reside in the gallery district of Woodstock, an eclectic neighborhood that is home to various art spaces such as the Woodstock Exchange, Stevenson Gallery, Goodman Gallery, Blank Projects, and the South African Print Gallery—all within walking distance of each other. Stevenson also represents the practice of one of the few contemporary South African artists to collapse the distinction between street artists and gallery artists. Robin Rhode, who is based in Berlin, grew up studying the surfaces of Cape Town’s streets. He began to interact with his own murals drawn onto walls, capturing the interactions in sequential Hasselblad photographic frames and thereby blurring the line between performance and the act of drawing.
Cape Town’s murals have inspired numerous creatives in the city. Kurt Orderson, a South African filmmaker, describes the streets of Mitchells Plain—the birthplace of many South African mural and street artists, including Gogga, Falko, and Jamo—as his university. According to Orderson and Lund, Cape Town’s walls are providing a vital space for the young “Born Free” mural artists of Mitchells Plain to address their history and current political conditions. Yet muralists today in Cape Town face a range of contemporary challenges. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Lund. “All you want to do is express yourself but you are seen, almost put in the same arena as gangsterism and crime. What you are doing is seen as illegal and you could be arrested or fined severely if you are caught doing it.”
Where exposure and resources are scarce, however, artists are finding a way to express their visions. And, Lund says, there is much more untapped potential in Cape Town. “There so many creatives and so many spaces,” he says. “There are so many artists and creatives who are looking for spaces to expose their work and expose their ideas. I think it is about capturing moments. Murals are supposed to reveal something. They are supposed to speak to a wider audience and to be accessible to everyone.”