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Creativity History  & memory

Making art in Cape Town

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Haroon Gunn-Salie, on how Cape Town made him an artist, and how he makes art in Cape Town, as told to Ambre Nicolson in the December 2014 Molo: Picture Imperfect City.

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Cape Town artist Haroon Gunn-Salie.

I had a very unique childhood. Both of my parents were Umkhonto We Sizwe commanders in the Western Cape. I was born while my parents were living underground and my mother, Shirley Gunn, had just been framed for a bombing that she hadn’t done. She did do quite a lot of other bombings, but not that one. There was a lengthy hunt for her and eventually they captured her and sent her to prison, along with me; that’s where I spent the first eight months of my life.

A story that my mom told to me when I was older was how I would take my crayons and stuff them into the lock of the prison door to try to open it – quite sweet, but not what you would consider a normal part of a child’s development.

I don’t really remember most of this history, my memories are made up of the stories I was told – I don’t have memories of the lived experience myself. This is something that came back to me when I was an art student at Michaelis. The exhibition I did at that time, called Witness, came out of those early experiences, because in choosing to work with a group of veterans from District Six, being told their stories and in translating those stories into artwork, I was also becoming a witness to them. My desire was to make artwork that could also function as the translation of oral history – not in a verbal or written sense, but in a way that is sculptural.

When I was an older child we also lived between the realities of Cape Town in other ways. Geographically we lived halfway between the mountain and the informal settlements on the Cape Flats, in a place called Belthorn Estate. I think to this day my mother is the only white person who lives there. Seeing the mountain from this point of view also gave me a perspective on the city itself. I first studied art as a Grade 8 student. In the third term my teacher came up to me while I was painting and told me that I was doing a terrible job. He took my brush out my hand and started painting himself. From then on I did drama. Later I also studied spatial design through the Frank Joubert Art Centre, which is an incredible institution that provides art teaching and resources to kids who don’t have art at school – of which there are too many in Cape Town.

After school I worked for an NGO here in Cape Town. I worked with rural people struggling for land redistribution, and that gave me a whole new way of seeing the city because it showed the difference between being urban and rural, and how the past has continued into the present.

At the time I was painting a lot of graffiti and it was on the basis of this that I applied to art school. I still have that portfolio – and wow, are those pictures bad!

As a student, I worked with the Human Rights Media Centre, and I played a part in organising and photographing an exhibition of stories from marginalised youth, called The Edge of the Table. The double meaning of this – of something being close to falling and also something on the periphery of Table Mountain – really struck a chord with me.

We live in a city in which apartheid architecture has ensured that the past perpetuates itself. But through that exhibition I also saw the power of art to be provocative, thoughtful, transformative. And that’s why I make art; I think it can be used to tell grassroots stories, and I think what is lacking in our city and our country is shared community narrative. I think the story of nation-building as a grand narrative often drowns out the small but important stories we should be telling each other.

I think it’s good that there is discussion happening around public art in Cape Town at present, but I disagree with some of the ways that artists are going about it. When it comes to the Michael Elion piece on the Sea Point Promenade, all I can say is that I am one of the Art54 artists, and I had no idea that that piece was going up. Problematic, right?

Then there is the case of that toilet that the Tokolos Stencil Collective dropped off at the Brundyn Gallery. My question with that is, if it’s activism, surely it’s better not to be anonymous? And why brand the toilet with your statement – that was not a toilet, it was an art toilet! Lastly, I think the Remember Marikana campaign is really good and important work – but I went to Marikana, and you know what? There are no stencils there. Surely the place they would most need to be put up, would be on that highway down which the mining executives travel every day?

It is these kinds of questions that led me to my recent campaign around street signs. After we arranged a follow-up to the Witness exhibition in the form of transforming one of the new homes in District Six phase two development, I realised that people are being moved back to Zonnebloem – not to District Six. When the area was first renamed that, a word that means sunflower in Dutch, it was meant to erase any trace of the people who had called the area home. So I took it upon myself to change the road signs back to say ‘District Six’. It’s been a year, but they’re still there. In the case of that work, it was more activism than art, I think. The question, really, is: do I want, one day, to have to show my child this part of the city, and have to explain why it hasn’t changed? I wonder: is that what my parents thought before they had me?

 


Read more about the creative narrative of Cape Town

 

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