Beads of Cape Town

Each February Cape Town hosts the international art community, but the city’s artistic resources reside there throughout the year

A dancer loudly addresses the audience with her storytelling, two others stomp their feet and move their bodies, some times compulsively, some others graciously and fluently, adding to the story, embodying the story, being the story. This happens on a stage outside of the Zeitz MOCAA, the old harbour granary, turned into a museum of contemporary art from Africa, where Igshaan Adams, a world-renowned South African artist, is having his exhibition ‘IGSHAAN ADAMS: ‘NOTWORKING (WORKING TITLE)’ in the form of a studio residency.

Audience and collaborators gather around the large scale artworks collaboratively created by Adams, who prepared the stage, and the dancers who transferred their stories on it. Photo by Neri Torcello

Six months, ending in April, in which the artist and his collaborators have moved their production to the second floor of the museum and worked in front of thousands of intrigued visitors projected into the reality of the studio life, potentially withstanding an afterthought, a creative exploit, or simply the relentless hands weaving bead after bead to create tapestries that will travel to museums around the world. Hanging on the walls, beside the artworks in the making, there is an array of old ones that were “not working” when they were produced, and are now the “working title” that fosters inspiration for the new. The performance I am attending outside is part of Adams’ collaborative and communal way of working, and this time he is teaming up with the Garage Dance Ensemble, a dance company dealing with ‘complex topics and issues relevant to the mixed race/coloured people of the Northern Cape and broader Southern African region’ – reads their website – ‘The production main focus is to facilitate a process of exploring and translating the memories, trauma and current lived experiences of the Khoekhoegowab (South Africa’s first people)’. Adams has previously laid layers of selected colors over the wooden board of the stage, then covered it with a large scale black canvas that, by sucking the colors up, will record and memorize the story as embodied by the dancers.

A moment of the performance by the Garage Dance Ensemble, hosted by Igshaan Adams during his studio residency at Zeitz MOCAA. Photo by Georgiana Ward-Booth

A few days before, I was in Langa, the oldest township in Cape Town, designed before apartheid to force black Africans into segregation after the Urban Areas Act in 1923 deemed urban areas in South Africa as “white”. ‘We are building the first agri-hub in Langa and this will allow urban farmers to cut costs up to 80%’ – says Mpilo Ngcukana – ‘Now we are looking to create compost within the community and start our own nursery’. Mpilo Ngcukana, introduced to me by one of my wife’s dear colleagues, who has been working for more than thirty years in system change and social regeneration, is one of the four founders of 16 on Lerotholi, an art space on one of the liveliest streets of Langa. Ngcukana, who was born in Langa from a family of legend jazz musicians, is a kind and smiling young man, with a humble and yet determined way of communicating. 16 on Lerotholi welcomes visitors to Langa, helping to destigmatize the image of the township, and using the income from the art space to feed participative projects of social regeneration, one of them, addressing the revitalization of urban farming in the area. ‘The danger of looking at apartheid as an event’ – he says – ‘is that it makes you think that it ended in 1994, while in fact we know that the urban context we live in was not designed for prosperity’, nonetheless ‘resources lie under our feet and within our neighborhood. A lot of talented people came from Langa and succeeded elsewhere, we want to keep some of these talents in the community. We want to plan consciously for the time ahead so that it won’t be just the past to inform our future’.

The founders of 16 on Lerotholi. From left: Shaun Williams, Mpilo Ngcukana, Khanyo Ngcukana, Thulani Fesi. Photo by Dillion Marsh

It is mid February, the end of the South African summer, the Cape Doctor – so Capetonians call the strong wind that cleans the city from pollution and ‘pestilence’ bringing new and clean energies to it – is blowing its last gusts. The main reason why I am here is to meet the beloved friends that were brought into my life thanks to years of traveling to Cape Town for Investec Cape Town Art Fair. A far away community that emits quanta of kindness and inspiration regardless of time and space. Now that Investec Cape Town Art Fair has made it to become a reference point for more than 25.000 global visitors, with a platform that hosts galleries from around the world, aiming to support the creative dialogue from a non-geographical perspective, I am eager to reciprocate the favour and it seems I am not the only one. ‘We put a lot of energy and dedication in the organization of the fair since the very beginning – says Laura Vincenti, the director of the fair since its first edition, in 2013 – and this year the whole team feels that the fair, the city and the international art community are giving back those energies’. It is happily coincidental that the theme of this year Tomorrows/Today section of the fair, that acts as a forecast of future relevant practices and ideas, and was curated by Natasha Baker and Mariella Franzoni, took inspiration from In and Out of Time by Maya Angelou. […] Trying to change our nightmares into dreams… | The sun has come. | The mist has gone. | We see in the distance our long way home. […]

Raquel Van Haver in her studio, Photo by Bo Bolderink

‘Artists just need to be in the experience’ – says Raquel Van Haver, an Amsterdam based artist, native to Colombia, whose work involves in-depth research and participative artistic practices that give voice to people and communities, and aims to open a transcontinental dialogue. Van Haver, who is back in Cape Town this year for the first time after the pandemic, has worked extensively in the African continent, collaborating with some of its more relevant organizations and artists, to name a few: Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, Dzimbanhete Arts and Culture Interactions, African Artists Foundation, Redclay and Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, David Krut Projects, and the Muholi Art Institute. Van Haver seems to have a sincere desire to reconnect as a way of feeding and rehabilitating those reciprocal inspirations and collaborative dynamics that endured the pandemic and are ready to receive and give back new impulses. ‘The touch, the smell, the everything’ – she goes on – ‘to reconnect the energy and knowledge, but with the awareness that everything has changed’.

After 2 years of pandemic and an overall reduction of intercontinental travels, artists crave for intimate moments of reunion and conversations with their peers. Collectors and cultural practitioners follow suit, and Cape Town seems to be the perfect place for this to happen. The city has become one of the most vital nodes of the increasingly connected Global South. Its uniquely cross-cultural artistic dialogue stretches across disciplines, activates communities, and invites their participation. Radical acts of creativity across all suburbs suggest the presence of infinite, renewable, and transformative resources.

Neri Torcello
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