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Write on Africa

March 10, 2011

South African street artists hope to inspire change through their art. While the west has been inundated with stencil art in recent years, in South Africa, the fledgling movement is heading in a different direction.

Graffiti by Freddy Sam
Creating change through art is key for the street artistsImage: Rowan Pybus

Ricky Lee Gordon aka Freddy Sam is a 25-year old South African street artist, curator, and creative activist based in Cape Town. He's also the founder of the Write on Africa project that aims to inspire and create change through art.

"In South Africa and Africa there are a lot of problems - food, health, education. Write on Africa doesn't aim to fix these problems. It aims to inspire these communities to make the change that they wish to see," said Gordon.

"So by painting a mural, you're just showing a symbol of hope. You're sharing your love as an artist and your energy, and changing the environment and spending time in a community," he added.

While volunteering at creches in Kayamandi, creative activist and artist Xanele Van Rensburg from Write on Africa, came up with the idea of painting the drab buildings to provide a creative environment for the kids. She asked the teachers to find out what the kids would like, and it turned out they really wanted pictures of animals.

Children in front of painting
The kids at the crèche wanted the artists to paint animalsImage: Xanele van Rensburg

Van Rensburg created a design featuring local birds including the crow, finch and neddiki for the Siyakhula creche, located in Kayamandi, Stellenbosch.

The first three creches were so well received that Write on Africa got funding to paint 20 more in the first half of this year.

Gordon also organized nine street artists to paint a home for teenage boys called Percy Bartley House in Woodstock, Cape Town.

Write on Africa rejuvenated the rundown building, filling it with bright colors, characters and inspiring messages - inside and out. Gordon painted two of the boys - the youngest and the oldest - collaging hopes, dreams and positive thoughts around the portraits, such as: "you are searching the world for treasure, but the real treasure is you".

Painting the boys' home put a spotlight on it and inspired others in the community to donate books, stationary supplies and furniture. Gordon also gives the kids an opportunity to express themselves, where on Saturdays they're invited to the Write on Africa workshop to hang out and paint.

A political message

One of the artists Gordon works with is Faith47 from Cape Town, South Africa. After being introduced to graffiti at age 16 she was hooked. With a love of typography and calligraphy, Faith 47's style has an elegant aesthetic, often combined with a political message. Growing up in South Africa, divided by Apartheid, Faith47 says that political graffiti had a big impact on her.

"The Apartheid activists who went and put up stencils and slogans - they really risked their lives then to do that. Many of them were jailed and beaten. I remember catching the trains and you'd see slogans like 'mobilize and mourn' or like 'free Mandela'," said Faith47.

Painting on the Siyakhula crèche
Art should inspire others to do good in their communityImage: Xanele van Rensburg

This background of political activism inspired Faith47 to embark on a series of large-scale works across South Africa featuring statements from the Freedom Charter. This document was written in 1955 by thousands of South African anti-apartheid activists working together fighting against exploitation and oppression. The Charter was banned, but after apartheid ended, it formed the basis of the country's constitution.

"A lot of the things in the Charter have not really been realized with the new government,” Faith47 explained. “So I was really looking at some of those aims and trying to put them in context of like today's streets to try to kind of remind people of the struggle which once was - which still actually is."

International recognition

Her work has even made waves in the international street art scene. Berlin-based publisher "From Here To Fame" have just released a book profiling her work.

"I always really liked her mixture of going in between graffiti and street art, using different media and styles for her work," said CEO Don R. Karl, adding that Faith47 was a natural choice because she combined the social and political dimension of her work with artistic expression.

"The South African Freedom Charter is a really great piece which shows exactly her way to go into politics and not only do something beautiful, but really touch people with her work," he said.

Armed with spray cans, tins of paint and paint brushes, Faith47 wrote statements from the Freedom Charter across the country - on walls, desks, pavements - and on the bridge leading into the Khayelitsha township in Cape Town.

Painting on a bridge
The bridge leads into the Khayelitsha township - one of Cape Town's poorest townshipsImage: Rowan Pybus

"I wrote "The People Shall Share in the Country's Wealth" which is one of the sentences form the Charter. I wanted to highlight the inequalities and install the feeling that it hasn't happened yet - which people are quite aware of," said Faith47.

Street Art democracy

Despite the staunch anti-graffiti laws which were introduced by the South African government in the lead-up to the football World Cup in 2010, the community has responded really positively to the work. While she also participates in exhibitions, Faith47 appreciates the democracy of the street.

"During the Apartheid times, non-white people were not allowed into galleries. And even today, it's still very elitist. The gallery culture is only for people that are really into art and its very, very niche," Faith47 said.

"I really think that street art or painting on the streets is a great way to really interact with the public, and that's especially relevant in African countries."

Author: Cinnamon Nippard
Editor: Andreas Illmer