Salt River in Cape Town has become ground zero for local street art, writes Allison Foat
It has undergone a hue revolution. In February, 44 street artists descended on Salt River in Cape Town armed with tins of paint, spray cans, brushes and masks.
With tools of creativity in hand and transformation in mind, they deposited waves of colour onto the drab façades of factories, schools, parks, playgrounds, offices and homes, injecting fresh vibrancy into one of the oldest parts of the Mother City.
It all started five years ago when South African graffiti artist Mak1one met with entrepreneurs Sébastien Charrieras and Alexandre Tilmans, the founders of the NGO Baz-Art, to discuss ways to showcase outstanding South African street artists.
It was time to nudge people beyond traditional galleries and draw attention to the masterpieces that exist outdoors for pedestrian pleasure in neighbourhoods all over town.
Their arty bosberaad led to the launch of the first International Public Art Festival, held over 10 days in February in Salt River.
Once a major hub of the steel and textile industries, it is known these days as one of the most culturally diverse and religiously tolerant areas in the metropole.
With varying degrees of support from the city, the Department of Arts and Culture, the local improvement district and the Art Africa Fair at the V&A Waterfront, the festival kicked off.
Local and foreign artists including Mak1one, Clément Mougel from France, WiseTwo from Kenya and many others shimmied up ladders, scaffolding and cherry pickers, their imaginations manifesting as remarkable stamp portraits, stencilled imagery, calligraphy, poetry, line drawings and pique assiette mosaics.
Community engagement was stimulated through partnerships between residents, local cooks, small businesses and volunteers. Fundraising efforts supported training for tour guides and art classes and workshops at underresourced schools.
Salt River resident Nadia Agherdine, whose family has lived in the area for 60 years, said: “Having this public art in Salt River has put the suburb on the map and it will provide opportunities for tourism.”
One of the artists who took part, DFeat Once from Woodstock, said the experience was humbling.
“I really enjoyed the kids’ reactions and interactions, the good vibes and great community spirit. My work is inspired by people and I aim to uplift.”
Several of the artists reproduced aspects of their wall art on smaller canvasses — 90 in total — for a travelling exhibition that will have its first showing in Cape Town at the end of May before moving to Europe and the US.
Graffiti — street art in its original form — is said to have had its genesis in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s when a schoolboy called Darryl “Cornbread” McCray began leaving his writing on the wall, so to speak.
The zigzag scrawl was often dissed as the anti-establishment handiwork of gangs that skulked about in hoodies after dark, shaking up their cans and spraying thick letters in subway tunnels and on trains, bridges, store roller-doors and construction sites.
No bare surface was safe and the tagging craze caused frustration for citizens and authorities alike.
But then Banksy happened; the faceless god of street art with an exceptional and smart brand of visual poetry who famously said: “Speak softly, but carry a big can of paint.”
Public perception of the subculture shifted, and the bad boys of tagging realised that skill and originality would win out over mediocrity, copycatting and sloppy scribbling.
Street art is now an integral part of modern urban culture. In every metropolis, commissioned art is emblazoned on strategic sites for all to admire.
Anyone who has stood dwarfed in front of a 10-storey mural dripping in detail and drawn perfectly to scale will attest to the sheer brilliance of the work.
Whether the end product is message-driven, addressing sociopolitical issues, or is just there to make something pretty, superb street art is inspiring and will make your heart skip a beat.
The Picassos of the pavement have made their mark and we are all the better for it. For the International Public Art Festival, it’s mission accomplished.