Multicolour art project in South Africa. German students help to overcome ethnic barriers

Ulrika Eller-Rüter

McGregor squatter camp

The scene is McGregor, a sleepy village 200 km from Cape Town. On the Internet it is praised as “jewel of South Africa” and a place where “time stands still”. And we do, indeed, have to keep reminding ourselves that we are in 2011: the main street of the village is lined with many beautiful colonial-style old houses with neat front gardens, cafes and galleries. About 350 white people live here, most of them of pensionable age. But this place also has another side: rows of streets containing brightly painted stone houses some of which are in need of repair, some of which are being rebuilt.

A squatter camp lies at the edge of the township, consisting cardboard and tin shacks, where 1600 Coloureds live. This is where the poorest of the poor, who have to make do with less than 100 euros per month, have to build. This is where all the social problems are concentrated: unemployment, violence, sexual abuse, alcohol abuse starting in childhood, teenage pregnancies and AIDS. No one talks about AIDS. If someone dies, the cause of death is given as TB or pneumonia. In South African society almost a whole generation is missing as a result of AIDS. Many children are being brought up by their grandparents because their parents are dead.

Alcoholism is a particular problem in this region with its many wines. The winegrowers traditionally paid their workers with wine; no wonder that this stimulated consumption. The scene on the streets from Friday to Sunday includes numerous drunks, not just men but also women and young girls – nearly still children, some of them pregnant. Many children already suffer from alcoholism in the womb.

Art surmounts ethnic barriers

It is in this place, in which the division of the social classes and ethnic groups is visible even on the map, that the first part of the Multicolour art project is held in the form of a week-long holiday programme for the township’s children. A team of 12 of us have arrived from overseas: nine students of painting, sculpture and music from Alanus University, the University of Osnabrück and Hamburg Music School as well as three lecturers. Our hosts are Whites, such as the socially committed manager of the family centre or artists who put us up in their houses. The contact with the coloured children and adolescents from the squatter camp is established immediately through the family centre. The primary school lets us use its premises and off we go: first thing in the morning choir for everyone, then to workshop units with theatre, drumming, linoleum print, body painting, material montage / land art, street art. The action in which everyone took part together was to paint the wall of a large rugby pitch. Thus all workshop participants painted the long wall of the rugby pitch with great concentration in the burning sun, section by section at lightning speed, sometimes 25 children and adolescents at the same time. Even young adults came and joined in. Each day it started anew like a kind of explosion until after a short period of time the large surface had been painted with saturated, loud colour contrasts, rhythmical formal elements and individual figurative motifs.

The painting was particularly popular among the boys. A fifty metre section of wall is the work of a team made up purely of men..

Thus a giant picture, about 150 metres in length, was created in the course of the week which exudes great vitality and brings to expression the potential of the children and adolescents from the township. Through art they were given a voice in the public space exactly at the entrance to McGregor, at the interface between squatter camp and main street.

Overall, we were able to establish close contact with all groups of the population in McGregor and move freely between the various ethnic groups and social classes in a way which was not possible for the white and coloured inhabitants because of the traditional social structures. There was very positive feedback about the project: from the children themselves through their enthusiasm and from the white inhabitants who applauded the coloured children in the final presentation. They had shown their commitment for the project idea and consistently supported us. Here it appears to have been realised what can be set in motion through art.

Robben Island – former prison island of Nelson Mandela

Robben Island: a distinctive spot on the planet lying in the ocean near the southernmost tip of South Africa off the Cape of Good Hope, where well over 3000 shipwrecks lie on the ocean floor. The Cape was feared by sailors in earlier times because of its treacherous cliffs and dangerous winds. Its friendly name comes from a fatal misapprehension by Portuguese sailors who at the time were in good hope of having found a fast sea route to India.

Robben Island stands for banishment, isolation and imprisonment. In the nineteenth century it was home to sick people suffering from leprosy and psychiatric disorders who were held there to keep them away from society. Otherwise the place is known for its large prison complex and during apartheid for political prisoners who were held here in mass cells or solitary confinement. The most popular inmate was probably Nelson Mandela whose four square metre cell we are able to look at in the so-called maximum-security block. A former prisoner who was imprisoned here at the same time as Mandela – although not for 27 years like the latter but “only” for 15 – guides us through the building and tells us about his experiences. Degradation and dehumanisation were the principles of punishment and here, too, the black prisoners were treated worse than the white ones. They could not even go to the toilet in private.

We are part of a peace programme with our art project. The host is the Robben Island Museum and the island’s primary school with about 15 pupils who come from the extensive townships of Cape Town and are brought daily by ferry. In order to extend the group of children and adolescents and cover the costs of the project, the two black primary school teachers have invited other schools from the Western Cape to participate so that a total of 35 participants from five schools are accommodated on the island for a week. The Multicolour aspect is indeed realised: black, white, coloured children and adolescents from various social backgrounds are seated together at a table to discuss the day’s programme together. The motto printed on a banner says: “Peace for Cultural Diversity - recognise, respect, respond and em­brace diversity”.

In view of the content and course of the project week, compromises had to be made between our concern to surmount social and cultural barriers through artistic work and the requirements of the education authority. Our hosts had worked out a very full programme in which our workshops were only held in the afternoon, with the exception of the choir which formed the prelude in the morning.

Bach on the prison island

As a result, the intensity of the collaboration with the children and adolescents varied. We were able to achieve clear successes in the choir. An extremely capable group of pupils in no time mastered canons in English and Latin as well as choral movements in Zulu and German. In response to the question from the musician whether there was anything he could achieve in South Africa as a German, Theta Sithole, head of the primary school, responded: “We want to hear what you can offer, please bring Johann Sebastian Bach.”

So “Now rest beneath night’s shadow” was rehearsed. At the closing concert the large group of guests who had arrived were able to hear how well the children and adolescents “harmonised” and that the gamble of mixing known and unknown had paid off.

The workshops were intended to relate to Robben Island. In “Landscape interventions” the participants investigated what could be expressed with the natural materials of the island; they composes and “localised” them. In the drawing workshop sketches and drawings of objects and impressions of the prison complex were made. For the closing event everyone did not just practice hard but an exhibition was also set up, including, on the one hand, the results from the workshops and, on the other hand, the artistic work of the lecturers and students which had been created in resonance to the local experiences.

The dangerous potential of the arts

It is symptomatic that during the time of apartheid in South Africa no artistic subjects were included in the separate school systems for black and coloured pupils. The Blacks were only supposed to receive a rudimentary knowledge of reading, writing and arithmetic. After that they went on to learn practical skills like cooking, cleaning, handiwork or gardening. The apartheid regime deliberately denied black and coloured children the opportunity to express themselves and develop their personality – an indication of how much the regime feared the capacities which slumbered in people. It is the wish of our hosts that this “dangerous” potential of the arts should also be further developed in South Africa, that modern multicultural country; for example in cooperation with the well-known painter and professor of visual arts at the prestigious Stellenbosch University near Cape Town.