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Seeing Township Art Through New Eyes

Township tours have always troubled me because they can make tourists feel like voyeurs- often it’s a form of poverty porn- yet I also know these areas desperately need investment. So I was delighted to be rid of that ambivalence when I went on a walking tour of Langa with Maboneng Tours. Maboneng involves visitors through art- they have created galleries for local artists in people’s homes- so the tourism experience is transformed into one of discovery and engagement.

Langa is South Africa’s oldest township, named after Chief Langalibalele, the hereditary chief of the Hlubi, who was imprisoned by the British on Robben Island in 1873 for rebelling against the Natal administration. Mosaic pillars that celebrate the history of Langa now stand on the four corners of the avenue that is named after him.

The tour begins at the Guga S’thebe Cultural Centre, an innovative piece of contemporary architecture with colourful mosaics decorating the walls. Guga S’thebe Kudala Usophulela” is a Xhosa idiom for the old platter that has served food and welcomed everyone to the house over the years. We were welcomed with a good cappuccino from the coffee shop before we set out on foot.

Our friendly guide Bongani chatted about the historical sites as walked past them…including one which was the starting point for the famous march in 1960 of roughly 50,000 people to Cape Town led by Philip Kgosana of the PAC, protesting the Apartheid pass laws. We also walked passed the hairstylists with their extraordinary multi coloured assortments of braids, the butchers slaughtering chickens and selling Smilies (Sheep’s heads), the taxi ranks and the mini supermarkets.

We visited 3 galleries in 3 different homes, each displaying a different artist’s works. The first, Mongezi Gum, vividly captures the energy and fun of kids playing in the street. Next was Volile Soha who learnt his printmaking at Rorke’s Drift and now works across many media, and then James Mosoke-Lulu, a sculptor from Uganda who is painting portraits with acrylic on black denim and is also experimenting with creating abstracts from beads.These are all very talented artists, producing work that bears no relationship to the stuff peddled on the side of the road as township art.

On we went to the old Men’s Hostels where the City has commissioned giant murals. They liven up the precinct even if they don’t hide the overcrowding and pervasive poverty in this part of Langa. And later, the walk around Bhunga Square brought home to me the dynamic role art can play. Here houses, garages, shacks, and outdoor toilets are enlivened by graffiti. “Once a shack has artwork on it, it is transformed into an open-air gallery,” says artist Falko. Red Bull sponsored the artists including Mundo from Brazil, Monstariam from Kuwait, and South Africans Skubalisto, Conform, Mr. Migo and Rayaan Cassiem. You can’t help but be excited; there is so much energy here. Thank you, Bongani for sharing this new world with me.

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