"Who we are" Macassar community exhibition

26 Sep 2018 - 11:30

by Studio Light in Collaboration with School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics, University of Cape Town

As part of a community outreach initiative and a design-build experiment, Clint Abrahams, a lecturer, and John Coetzee, a principal technical officer from the School of Architecture, Planning & Geomatics, curated an exhibition entitled “Who We Are” in Macassar, a township 38kms from Cape Town. The two worked with Studio Light a non-profit youth development organisation consisting of ten participants from the area. In 2015 Studio Light wanted to alter the distorted mental image of the Macassar community. A perception tarnished by crime, poverty and other social ills they believed hindered meaningful engagement from locals and those visiting. The objective was to alter perceptions and to install a new appreciation of the place Macassar and its people. Workshops and discussions held on Friday evenings in living rooms revealed that the reproduction of an alternative image could serve as a potential antidote to the negative perceptions. It was decided to do this using the one common tool that all the participants had access to, the cell phone.

In June of 2016 after a photographic workshop, the group embarked on street photography fortnightly, armed with cell phones, tablets and one camera. They reconnected with their neighbours by developing trust as they captured people amidst everyday settings. After two years the group produced a series of images that brought into view a new picture of hope and promise. To display the visual work the group then embarked on developing their own display system comprising of found objects. Metal connectors that enabled a variety of display configurations were designed and manufactured with one of the parents, a boilermaker. Due to no space available for their operations, the backyards of their parents were used to prepare timber pallets donated by Afri-pallet. These ordinary spaces were transformed into extraordinary places by the imagination of these young people as they consistently considered why what and how to display the work. In July of 2017, the group attended a frame making workshop at the School of Architecture, Planning & Geomatics presented by John Coetzee and Shafiek Matthews. The youth-produced frames from reclaimed timber which was then used to frame the images.

Weekly community participatory meetings resulted in the collective planning of an exhibition which started 16 July 2018 for a duration of a week with visual installations spread across three sites, two private homes and the Macassar Public Library, implying a route that could become a catalyst for urban regeneration.

The home of Thomas and Enith Adonis known as ‘Bong’s Place’ by locals was used to display the story and journey of Studio Light as an introduction to the exhibition. Here a shack previously used as a shebeen was converted into a temporary gallery. The conversion pays homage to the generosity of the ad-hoc structures used by the youth to produce the work. The private home of Paul Swartz was opened to the public for viewing of the many creative works made by this inspiring TV  repairman and sculptor. Here visitors were confronted with the potential citizens hold to the betterment of their environment through the re-purposing of found objects. Inside the library, the installation consisted of a temporary structure assembled using the display system made by the youth in conjunction with a used timber portal structure donated by the Swedish group Ikea. The assembly of the structure was completed as a design-build exercise between the Studio light participants and second-year design students from the School of Architecture, Planning & Geomatics. The structure is used to display the images captured over the past 24 months.

On 21 July 2018, after a week of interaction with the installations, the exhibition was opened with a series of reflections shared by members of the community. The revelation of the extraordinary ordinary was accepted with great enthusiasm and gratitude. A storytelling session further epitomised this by author and poet Diana Ferris who offered a heart moving rendition of her Sarah Baartman story. This affirmed not only the humanity of the people of Macassar but all in attendance. An affirmation imperative to transformative community building and inclusive living.

In conclusion of the opening, Studio Light invited others to contribute as well. Many of the community members have responded by adding their stories in response to the visual work. These responses are being captured and curated to become part of the installation resulting in an exhibition representative of the entire community and an ongoing work aimed at constructing an alternative image as an antidote to the distorted one currently portrayed of Macassar.

At the end of August, the library’s gate reading recorded an increase of 1200 visitors during the exhibition. The versatility of the display has also enabled adjustments complementary to the daily operations of the library thus ensuring a more enduring contribution to the image and life of the library. What was intended as temporary, is now regarded as a permanent installation continually responding to the community’s challenges by shaping space and reflecting aspirational realities. The home of Thomas and Enith Adonis is still offered as a gallery space at certain times of the month, and the shed has now become a space shared between its owners, Studio Light, a weekend food vendor and the rest of the community. An extraordinary example of domestic generosity. The work has sparked other academic interests that are also being pursued in the area concerning the built environment. The group is working on a follow-up installation as a collaborative effort between the local schools and other community organisations to ensure its sustainability.