Activism and the big picture
Over the past year, billboards have been cropping up in township taxi-ranks, bus stops and near clinics. The only tata-ma-chance message they solicit is one of interaction between the viewer and the art and poetry displayed. The Women for Children’s Rights art project is aimed at “raising awareness around children’s rights and inspiring a sense of social responsibility towards the rights of children”, said Jan Jordaan, from the Art for Humanity programme linked to the Durban University of Technology’s fine art department.
“Art pieces talk across humanity, not to a particular age group, gender or race.
People can relate and respond to art. Another objective of the project was to make it resonate within the community it was situated in and to ensure it became part of the cultural heritage.
“Art and poetry is, in many instances, missing from these communities,” said Jordaan about the project that brought 25 artists to work with a poet for a series of billboards, 21 of which have already been erected around the country.
The participants included 2005 Daimler Chrysler Award for South African Poetry winner, Gabeba Baderoon, poets such as Lebo Mashile, Karen Press and Finuala Dowling, while artists such as Angela Buckland, Gabisile Nkosi and Berni Searle participated.
Jordaan believes art is a powerful advocacy tool and its proliferation in impoverished areas can act as a salve for societal wounds: “My personal observation is that a society, which has a lot of art doesn’t have the same amount, or the extent, of problems that we find endemic here,” he said alluding to South Africa’s high domestic and child-abuse figures.
Liesl Jobson, whose poem Groote Schuur Paediatric appears alongside Kerry-Lyn Potgieter’s etching Push ‘n’ Pull said she was moved by the piece and could relate to the theme as an adult who has experienced brutality. She said she wanted to evoke that sense of emotional tension that young children find in, for example, a situation where their parents are divorcing. She is currently working on a young adult novel examining “the self mutilation that is rampant among young girls. It is very scary for me because it means young girls have internalised brutality and are perpetuating it physically on themselves,” she said.
Artist Dina Cormick said her approach, together with poet Mari Pete, was to move away from the graphic horror and provide alternatives of hope and empowerment in the linocut How Often do we Bend Down to Help the Children and the poem Emoyeni (spirit/breath). “I’m very concerned with creating didactic art, which is accessible and provides answers and a path to follow,” said Cormick.
“We seem to be backstepping and becoming a more selfish society losing its ethics. Help is possible if you take the time to stop instead of walking past something on the street. Women and children are the most vulnerable, but at the same time we have an incredible strength and it is up to us to change things around us.”
Lien Botha described her collaboration with poet Karen Press for the digital print and poem Living Children and Dead Children as “almost seamless and instinctive”.
“I have an intrinsic respect for her work and her ability to immaculately articulate text,” said Botha, whose print used a black-and-white image from the 1980s, superimposed on another image of starlings to create a bleak, desolate landscape. Botha and Press have collaborated previously on projects such as the District Six Land Installation.
Art for Humanity, which emerged in 2003 out of Art for Human Rights has used the medium of billboards for other advocacy-meets-art projects, including the Break the Silence HIV/Aids campaign in 2000, which won the 2001 eThekwini Mayors Award for Excellence in 2001.
Angela Buckland’s images of home
“Every parent’s secret dread is a ‘dodgy’ child,” says Angela Buckland, as she keeps her eyes sharply fixed on her autistic son Nikki, who is engaged in a mysterious and repetitive ritual of lighting newspaper on the toaster, then running into the garden with the miniature inferno held aloft like the domestic version of an Olympian torch-bearer.
“It’s a peculiar paradox,” she continues. “You don’t love your child any less because of their ‘disability’, simply because they’re your child. Yet, in the beginning, part of you wishes you could ‘fix’ them so they can be ‘normal’.
“You overcome this when you realise this person is a whole, complete and unique person just like everyone else, not someone with a defect or something missing.”
This is what Judge Albie Sachs, who lost most of his right arm and the sight of one eye in a 1988 car bombing by apartheid agents in Maputo, calls “the great democracy of the disabled” in his foreword to Buckland’s remarkable book zip zip my brain harts (HSRC Press). The book is a combination of images by renowned photographer, Buckland, and powerful essays by researchers Kathleen McDougall, Leslie Swartz and Amelia van der Merwe. A potent read, it is nonetheless not for those who prefer to steer clear of the treacherous rapids of life’s torrent. As Sachs astutely observes: “Don’t expect a work about difficulty to be easy.”
Nikki dashes out the house once again clutching another flaming twist of newspaper. “What’s he doing?” I enquire. “Who knows?” replies Buckland with a bemused smile that speaks of having been asked this question many times before.
Another restless presence in the Buckland household is Dumi, the new family boxer who is currently being housebroken. In the time-honoured tradition of this process, the floor is covered with newspaper. By sheer coincidence, one of the headlines staring up at us proclaims “Television blamed for rise in autism”. I ask Buckland if she’s read the article, but she merely glances at it and says she hadn’t noticed it before. In fact, she looks like she would derive more satisfaction from Dumi taking a dump on the thing than actually reading it.
Buckland is somewhat equivocal when it comes to the issue of the role of the media in stigmatising disability. “On the one hand,” she says, “it can be a powerful tool in correcting erroneous stereotypes, but on the other it often reinforces these. In many cases it’s the most well meaning of literature, which entrenches the notion of ‘difference’ in the case of disability.”
She points to a parental self-help book astonishingly entitled What to Do About Your Brain-Injured, Brain-Damaged, Mentally Retarded, Mentally Deficient, Cerebral-Palsied, Emotionally Disturbed, Spastic, Flaccid, Rigid, Epileptic, Autistic, Athetoid, Hyperactive or Attention Deficit Disorder Child.
This publication must surely hold the record for the longest title of a book, but far more deleterious is its subtle implication that on that shopping list of disabilities there’s surely one to fit the bill of the fruit of your own womb or loins.
For Buckland this is emblematic of the wider problem, which is the continual emphasis of the “dis” over the “ability” in the term “disability.” “If people made an effort to focus totally on the latter syllable,” she says, “the former might just disappear.”—Alexander Sudheim