By Sam van Heerden, writer and researcher
From marching in the town centre to occupying parks, people often gather to challenge the status quo in public spaces. Street art is no different. Though it might not come to mind when we think of protest, plastering graphics and words onto city walls is a political intervention.
A visiting anthropology researcher from the University of Konstanz, Dr Jeannine-Madeleine Fischer, recently spoke to first-year Fine Art students about street art as a form of activism. The cohort created a collaborative mural on Somerset Street, Makhanda under the guidance of local street artist ‘Mook Lion’, known for his boldly checkered line-cut donkeys around town.
“Walls separate what is inside from what is beyond them. They enclose. And they generally go unnoticed unless something brings them to our attention,” explained Dr Fischer, who is studying the work of Mook Lion and other South African street artists for her postdoctoral studies. “Street art is often unexpected and questions how our common spaces are [shared and used].”
In democracies, public space is vital because it is a physical place where citizens can encounter each other and discuss issues and ideas. Given how these areas are often regulated and controlled, Dr Fischer said that creating public art is in itself a political act. Even if the work is not overtly political, it “contests our access to public space” and questions how it is used, who it is used for, and which voices count within it.
Particularly in a country so mired in inequality, it is significant that anyone can look on and be captivated by murals and urban painting. “Access to art is privileged,” said Dr Fischer, “Street art can reclaim its potential and make it more accessible, [encouraging debate and visual appreciation across society].”
From artistic work looming large on the side of buildings to small tags on bus stops and street signs, these public visuals can ignite and become a part of civic dialogue. In 2012, the ANC temporarily blocked renowned Durban artist Andries Botha from completing his public elephant sculpture because of the animal’s association with a rival political party. Dr Fischer explained how Mook Lion started reproducing elephant paintings around Durban to protest the attempted control of symbols and communal space.
There is also urban art which is more explicitly political. In the well-known ‘Remember Marikana’ image, a figure clothed in a green blanket stretches out his arm and clenches his fist in defiance. Just as this graphic sparked debate and awareness around the ‘Marikana Massacre’ of 2012, Dr Fischer explained how murals and graffiti can dispute whose stories are visible and given a platform in society.
It can also bring attention to how we want our shared spaces to be. “Our public spaces in Makhanda can sometimes be depressing. There is the degeneration of infrastructure, widespread poverty, and dominant security visuals like high walls and fences,” said Mook Lion. “Art has many positive emotional benefits. It can enhance our shared spaces and promote community and joy. And it gives a human touch to the city we live in.”
But street art is not always subversive. Though it has the power to contest the status quo, Dr Fischer emphasised that it can also be used to support it. Absorbed into pop culture, it often becomes a part of gentrification and commercial projects.
Nonetheless, urban art encourages passers-by to engage with their surroundings by imbuing everyday life with the strange and surprising. “You will [see] and perceive it not matter what,” explained Dr Fischer. “And so it has the power to make us learn and unlearn different ways of experiencing the world.”
Street art is a living thing that fades, is covered over and exists for a moment in time, much like social struggles. But like protest, it can change and move its sometimes unwilling recipients. Its legacy and voice are often alive long after the paint has chipped and faded away.