Troyeville Park. A mix of jungle gyms, slides, merry-go-rounds, designer benches and dustbins and the remains of mosaicked tables — remnants of a 1996 revamp. The current revamp (prompted by 2010’s World Cup) is under way and running late; mid-construction building works and general construction site rubble dominates the area. Unfazed by all this are the kids who play there, even those on the merry-go-round, with its unstable moorings in need of serious attention.
Still in good condition, and central to the after-school action, is the skating bowl, installed in 1996. Local resident, 18-year-old Thokozani Madonsela, has been skating for two years. He describes himself as a bowl skater (as opposed to street) and aspires to become a pro with sponsorship. ‘It takes me away from the things the young people are doing nowadays — drinking, smoking bad stuff. I meet new people, make new friends with skating.” He got started when he exchanged his scooter bike for a friend’s board. ‘You learn by practising every day, trying new tricks every day.”
KG (15) first tried skating three years ago, after begging his mom to buy him a board, and got hooked to the feeling of landing a trick (executing a difficult move). ‘It’s so amazing, like scoring a goal in soccer.” According to KG, anyone can start skating, even an old guy like me. I have my doubts as, I flinch every time one of the Troyeville bowl skaters doesn’t quite land a trick, landing on his bum instead.
Herbert (13) and Madumetja (15) come all the way from Hillbrow. They long for a skate park in their neighbourhood, to save them the trek to Troyville. Herbert, who describes himself as a street skater, says the only way to learn is by trying and falling. Learning from pro skaters motivates Madumetja to walk all the way from Hillbrow.
One of the pros on this particular afternoon, with 17 years of experience, is Pravesh Manga. He describes himself as a street skater, any free space is his ‘skate park”. ‘Drive through [Jo’burg’s inner city] on any weekend and you’ll see areas such as Library Gardens, Standard Bank headquarters and Newtown transformed by street skaters trying their new ollies [jumps], grinds [riding on the axle] and kick-flips [flipping the board in a 180% revolution].”
The art of landing back on your board in one piece, says Manga, takes practise. ‘You develop your own way of skating so you don’t fall off and hurt yourself all the time. I take a whole hour to warm up; basically, I ride around, feeling my board, maybe do some stretches. I won’t do any pop tricks for at least an hour.”
This is a physically demanding, socially interactive and highly focused sport — a youth culture often perceived as delinquent, but clearly the opposite.
Part of the appeal of park skating also seems to be the entertainment value for the audience around the bowl, who break into spontaneous applause when someone lands a spectacular trick. At one point, as Manga pulls an impressive move, a youngster shouts out, in imitation of the Krishna chant: ‘Hare Hare skater”.
Down the road from the park, at Spaza Art gallery, Manga is pulling even more impressive moves with his exhibition of paintings on old skateboards.
In keeping with Spaza Art’s vision of promoting community and emerging art, Manga’s first solo exhibition is an expression of youth culture with a unique design element: old skateboards as canvasses, combining computer-generated images and spraypaint, oils and acrylics.
Where did you get the boards from?
They’re my old boards, and friends’.
Why paint on boards?
It actually originated from a project at art college (Parktown College) about personal identity. I used photographs of friends and family, and a skateboard as my canvas. All skateboards have graphics on the underside, but these are made to hang on the wall, not to skate; an alternative to rectangular canvases. I enjoy the feeling of it. People can look at the art and know something about me.
How would you describe yourself?
I want to relate to the world as a human, a person, not an Indian or a Muslim or a Hindu. I feel my work expresses that, because it could fit in anywhere.
The title, Skate of Mind?
To learn to skate well you have to think about it a lot, use your mind. Skating also needs a certain state of mind: focused and undistracted. It’s like a meditation, a ‘skate of mind”.
Do you experience the same ‘skate of mind” when creating your art?
Ja, but then I’ve often got to have a bit of music when I’m working to create a flow.
The courts where I practise, portraits of some of the guys that hang out there, the city around me, self-portraits, soccer, alcoholism and how it makes you see life in blurry lines. I need my skating to get into a ‘skate of mind”, an escape. It’s healthy, actually; we all need something to take us away from the worries of life. I’ve found I can do that with skating instead of drugs or alcohol. My art also gives me that.
How long did it take you to complete the boards in your exhibition?
The first was done at college, so it’s about three or four year’s work.
Why Spaza Art?
I started doing a bit of part-time work here before studying art, painting banners and murals. I’ve learnt a lot here, so it’s a way of giving something back. I can’t imagine having my first show anywhere else.
Have you painted since?
I never did art at school, but I had friends, two guys I met when I used to skate in Yeoville, who were at Sacred Heart, and when I saw their school art projects, I was amazed and got interested in doing it myself. Maybe it also runs in the family; my father was a musician, he played with a band called the Hoochie Coochies. I don’t know how famous they were or anything.
Is it nerve-racking, having your first solo show?
I am a little anxious about what people will say, especially some of my old lecturers.
What is the most frustrating thing about being an artist?
Not making enough money from my work. I have lots of ideas, but finance is always standing in the way.
What’s the most exciting thing about being an artist?
Finding a way to combine my passions. My skating is also an art, but that’s more like the performance and this is more like the relaxation. It also excites me to learn as I work and meet more and more people.
Who are your audience?
Older skaters who’re too busy working to skate anymore, but also the general public, collectors, because I don’t think the young skaters will be able to afford the work, even though they’ll be interested to see it.
What is your earliest memory?
Playing in the streets down the road from Spaza Art, around Albrecht Street in Jeppe; we had a house there. I was always the youngest guy in the crowd. We were a few families in different houses, but all our back doors opened on to the same yard. That’s where I got my nickname, Po.
Top of your wish list for 2007?
To carry on painting, get a lot more work and make more money.
Skate of Mind is on until November 23 at Spaza Art, 19 Wilhelmina Street, Troyeville. Call (011) 614 9354 or 082 494 3275 for more info