The Community Arts Workshop (CAW) in Durban, which functioned during the mid 80s, played an important part in shaping my decision to work in culture and touched the lives of many who experienced it. It was a modest arts centre, literally a hall with a few small spaces alongside for a kiln and some pottery wheels, and where the easels and art materials were kept. It was on the edge of the inner city, near the bus and train routes. Nothing about it stood out if you walked past. But It was, as all good art centres like it are, a space for vibrant creative expression, and open thinking. Importantly, at the height of apartheid repression it was a free space for intercultural collaboration.
The Diversity of Sound
As a young person then, I was into music that was not in the mainstream - Reggae, Punk, Funk, Alternative, Electronic and African, inspired by a host of musicians here and around the world who were experimenting with these forms, often fusing them together. In segregated South Africa where freedom of thought, expression and association was curtailed, this diversity of music often came with diverse audiences, and as a result the CAW was a powerful little space because it brought people from different cultural and class backgrounds together, shaping a new society through sound and image. The weekly club nights, Play, run by the veteran Avant-garde artist Helge Jannsen and his eclectic playlist was the perfect anchor sonically for the space, and visually. I remember coming in one night and watching a Rasta dancing with a cane, swinging his dreadlocks to a deep dub record, spun by Helge in a harlequin outfit and makeup, with a group of goths joining in - a foreign image in the rest of Apartheid Durban then.
At CAW I was exposed to the emerging sounds from the South African underground through a series of live bands who were touring around the country. I danced to the joyous sounds of Winston's Jive Mix Up, from Johannesburg playing a mix of Kwela and Mbaqanga and was blown away by the "Skollie" sounds of The Genuines from Cape Town. Groups like these were pushing the boundaries of what local music was and could be, and were exceptional performers. I experienced through their music and style other ways of viewing the other, different possibilities and new horizons. The members of these bands would continue to make an impact on South African music for years after in various outfits, and years later I was fortunate to work with some of them.
CAW was not just a music venue, but was used during the week for art classes providing space for a group of artists of colour to find their voice, a number of whom would go on professionally in later years (like Sifiso Ka Mkame and his work pictured below). A committed group of artists across racial barriers kept the space alive, until city council took back its building and demolished it for a new development.
The importance of Cultural Spaces
I've come across many small but powerful arts spaces like these all around the world. They are often in non descript buildings where regular cultural programs take place: usually a mixture of making, learning and presenting art. They are often multi-disciplinary spaces or organised around one dominant art form. They are usually driven by like minded people who are held together by a shared set of values rooted in ideas around universal human rights and who share a collaborative ethic. While there may be a strong central core of artists, many participants come and go, across age, gender, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation. The line is often thin between the professional and amateur. They tend to be convivial spaces, accepting, energizing and inspiring.
I'm interested in spaces like these because they speak to an ancient urge by humans to create, to share stories and for communal movement. They enable humans to connect, communicate and bond. Its in the dynamism of this environment of creative expression and collective sharing, that new ways of being and new learnings emerge, where we find each other as people across barriers. As nurturing hubs that welcome in participants, they create a safe zone from which to experiment, build confidence and grow. It doesn’t require a great deal except the space and committed people.
At a time when so many cities around the world are coming to grips with rapidly shifting demographics, as people flock to cities, sometimes from rural areas or from other lands, cultural spaces provide the potential for creative and convivial meeting spaces. The global north, and in particular many European countries have been providing such spaces for city residents for decades and need them more than ever in a rapidly globalizing world to help foster better intercultural communication.
Providing Cultural Spaces in South African Cities
In South African cities, divided as they are by crippling social divisions, spaces like these are critical - allowing people of difference to gather and share together. But they are few and far between with the state primarily supporting commercialized "receiving houses" servicing largely the middle class in five inner cities. After Apartheid ended formally in 1994, many of our important arts spaces, focused on participation and collaboration closed. Its hard trying to keep an arts space together under conditions of political stress, but it appears harder in the New South Africa, where funding has not found its way to community based arts spaces, often seen narrowly as "educational projects". The National Department of Arts and Cultures disastrous program of Community Arts Centres has lurched around since its started in 1996 and has yet to achieve any meaningful change:
Optimization of the arts centres requires a policy-driven approach by a facilitative government, in partnership with civil society, focusing on policy implementation rather than policy-making, and on realistic programmatic output by capacitated local organizations rather than infrastructure. Gerard Hagg; The state and community arts centres in a society in transformation (2010)
What can we learn?
What the CAW example shows is the vital importance of content at the heart of a an arts centre, driven by a committed vision and ultimately rooted in dedicated and caring cultural workers.
In next weeks article, I will suggest how local government, in South Africa, leveraging its strongest asset - property - can create space for cultural development and social cohesion, and how learnings made in the City of Cape Town's Arts and Culture Department, inspired by experiences of cultural spaces like CAW, can show some ways this can be done.