Art against fear in South Africa | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 12.12.2012
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Art against fear in South Africa

Many people avoid certain areas of Johannesburg. Even after apartheid, the city remains divided into black and white, rich and poor. The Goethe-Institut is using art to help break down the barriers.

A dilapidated car hangs high in the air, an advertisement for a dubious-sounding service.

"Rent-A-Wreck" is the name of a car hire firm in Johannesburg's inner city. "This is a forgotten part of town," says the taxi driver as he drives between rundown facades and piles of trash.

Two years ago I was warned that this area wasn't safe for whites. So what am I looking for here today? The car hire firm is the starting point for an unusual city tour. It's not aimed at intrepid tourists, but at Johannesburg residents, and is a performance art project titled "United African Utopias."

A car hangs in the air, Photo: Aya Bach

The tour starts here at the Rent-A-Wreck site

It's a mixed bunch of people - some old, some young, some dark skinned, some light - that sets off on the tour. Two female performers, dressed in golden robes and carrying dainty Japanese parasols, lead us on foot through the inner city, through streets where whites rarely dare to tread. Equipped with garishly colored radios, we are enveloped by a soundtrack which serves as an acoustic signal to outsiders that this is no ordinary tour.

Every now and then masked figures appear as if from nowhere. Our path leads us past cheap boutiques, street vendors selling flip flops, adverts for penis enlargement and 30-minute abortions. We stare curiously at all this, cameras clicking non-stop. The people who live here seem unconcerned by our presence. No one is robbed or verbally abused. We get the feeling that, actually, we can move about here quite normally.

Spooky scenes

A little later, we make our way through the Carlton Center, built in the 1970s as Africa's biggest skyscraper, a prestige object incorporating a luxury hotel. What remains is a bustling shopping mall for the less well off. The hotel is deserted, the entrance sealed.

Watch video 01:37

Adventurous city tour

The elevator takes us to an eerily empty floor of the huge building. A mysterious accordion player breaks the silence with a few melancholy notes and then disappears. We stand in the dark; the air is stuffy and oppressive.

Gradually we make out the outline of an ice skating rink, now a relic of a bygone age. Several members of our group remember visiting it as children.

But since the 1980s and 90s, the Carlton Center has deteriorated as a result of the country's apartheid policies, just like the entire business district in the city center. More and more companies moved out and the area became a slum. Today it still suffers from a "no go" image, although police and video cameras have reduced the crime rate.

Pure cynicism?

The tour organized by a joint German-South African team ends by taking us to an area that no one in the group has ever entered before, even though it is right in the center of town. It's a black township called Alexandra, just a stone's throw from the posh area of Sandton.

We see small huts of corrugated iron and portable toilets (the only kind here). A couple of goats graze amongst the trash. We drive past in a minivan, peering out the windows. Are we indulging in cynical tourism, feeding on the misery of others? I feel uneasy and wonder what this has to do with art.

Two masked performance artists in an otherwise empty room, Photo: Aya Bach

Strange figures add an element of mystery to deserted sites

I ask how those members of our group feel who are themselves non-white residents of Johannesburg. They do think there's an element of voyeurism. "But it's better to confront that than not to look at all," says a young video cutter. "The levels of disconnection are huge because people outside are scared, because they're alienated culturally, because it completely shatters the bubble of the lives in which they've made themselves comfortable."

Deep divisions

After the visit to Alexandra, no one in the group feels comfortable any more. The Goethe-Institut's performance art project is a tightrope act.

"Johannesburg is a city in the post-apartheid age," says Lien Heidenreich, head of the institute's cultural program. "It's a city which is growing together, but in which several parallel worlds exist."

Those other worlds became clear to us during the tour. But the culture program also aims to foster a process of growing together and closing the gaps - like with the "In House Project," a second performance art series. For this, Sello Pesa organized private performances, with artists performing in private houses or gardens or outside in the street.

The audiences are sometimes tiny. When a performer from Berlin philosophized about the world of mobile phones and the evils of capitalism, he was watched only by two young girls peering over the fence. But the very fact that their parents allowed them to watch counts as a success in the Lenasia district where black and Indian-origin residents are deeply divided.

Watch video 00:29

Dancing in the street

"It took five years before they would speak to each other," Sello says. He comes from Soweto and knows all about cultural divisions.

War songs from Lesotho

Such divisions do not only separate ethnic groups or people with different skin colors. Protea, a modern part of Soweto, is home to black South Africans who have climbed several rungs up the social ladder.

It is irritating for the people here to suddenly hear traditional war songs being sung in front of their houses. The singers are men from Lesotho, originally rural dwellers who now live in Johannesburg as trash collectors. Worlds separate them from Protea.

We are invited into a house for a snack. "Will the boys go in and sit down on chairs?" Sello Pesa wonders. "I don't think so. Anyway, they don't speak English." The inhibitions prove too strong, the singers remain outside.

A tour guide Photo: Aya Bach

Tour guides gave Johannesburg residents a new look at their own city

Later, I talk to two of them, Mapa and Levine, with the aid of an interpreter, and they tell me how proud they are to be part of the project.

"I want to break down the old barriers," Sello Pesa tells me. "I'd like to succeed in getting people to sit down together so that after maybe 10 or 20 minutes they start talking, asking normal questions like 'what's your name?' For me art is a way of bringing people together.

"I still don't know how it functions; perhaps I'll know more in a couple of years' time."

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