Art provides a new way of living
Two mosaic-covered pillars support the highway in Bertrams, Johannesburg’s oldest suburb. It’s a rundown place where jobs are scarce and drugs are plentiful. But the pillars sparkle in the sun—islands of colour in a bleak landscape.
The artists are based nearby, at the Khula Udweba Creative Learning Centre. Run by the Curriculum Development Project Trust (CDP), the centre provides a safe space for women from many different backgrounds, who have found a way to rebuild their broken lives by making art.
“They are proud. They are joyous. They struggle like hell,” says CDP director Charlotte Schaer. “Their art is an absolute celebration. It’s enabling a new language where women can define themselves.”
Schaer started the CDP from her home in 1989 when a wave of state-sponsored violence was sweeping through Jo’burg’s townships. Now it operates in five provinces and runs programmes for children, teachers, women refugees and survivors of sexual violence.
We arrive at Khula Udweba on a Tuesday morning. Two dozen women are singing and dancing in a tight circle. On the walls are paintings, some emblazoned with statements such as “Right to say no” and “Proudly lesbian”.
Some of the women participate in Naledi Yamiso, a programme that helps them to get to grips with violence and HIV/Aids. Others are here to learn craft-making skills to generate much-needed income for themselves and their families.
Healing the wounds
Such programmes are not only about sharing skills or finding personal healing. They also challenge women to overcome barriers of language, sexuality and nationality.
Bertrams suffered badly during the 2008 xenophobic attacks. Hundreds of families fled to refugee camps but most of them eventually returned. Schaer believes that the CDP’s programmes “played a role in healing the scars, the fears and the mistrust”.
Schaer wears a T-shirt printed with the words “Hell to rapists” in bright orange letters. Her office is creative chaos. On her desk is a clumped chain of about a hundred keys, all strung together like grapes—a contraption whose only raison d’être seems to be its visual and auditory qualities.
“Art is quite subversive. It allows you to challenge things,” she says.
Phindile Morape agrees: “It doesn’t matter if one is uneducated, rich or poor. It is good to see that, as women, we share the same sentiments.”
Morape’s friend Victoria is a mother of five from the Democratic Republic of Congo. When she arrived in South Africa, she stayed at home where there was “nothing to do and too much thinking”. Then she came to the centre and her life changed. “Now I can speak to everyone. I have made relationships with people.”
Coming from the heart
“We’re a family now. No one can discriminate against you around here,” says fellow artist Nomagugu Gugu. “If you’ve got a problem, the other ladies can tell you, no, just do this and everything will be okay. That’s the way it is here.”
For Gugu, learning the art of mosaic is a “very, very good challenge” and a way to “put food on the table”. Her advice is simple: “Just take your time and be committed to what you do. Make sure it comes from your heart.”
Like many women at the centre, Elizabeth Mahlaela has never thought of herself as an artist because she “can’t draw”. Tie-dyeing was a revelation. “You don’t know what you’re doing until you rinse,” she says. “[Then] you see beautiful pictures and you experience something from them.”
Mahlaela’s friends are eager to share their experiences. Some describe how the CDP’s programmes saved them from abusive relationships at home. “I wish that other women can get this opportunity,” says one.
Schaer wishes they could, too. Sadly, demand far exceeds resources by a ratio of six to one.
But that may change. Young mother Antoinette Koemoer is so excited by what she has learned in the CDP’s Art as Economic Liberation programme that she has decided to open a gallery at her mother’s home. More women want to join her. On weekends they often socialise and make mosaics in her kitchen.
She shows off their latest creation, a table still covered in dust. “This is our most inspiring work,” she says, picking up fragments of tile and blowing off the dust to reveal a red mosaic heart, with another shape emerging from it.
“You see? There’s wings inside the heart,” Koemoer says. “It’s flowing.”