Porters and performers

The overwhelming noise, odours and crowds particular to downtown Johannesburg are something entirely foreign to some who live on the city’s grassier flanks.

But they are the signs of a sprawling informal economy that in many ways keeps the city on its feet from day to day. One group of entrepreneurs in this system, the ‘trolley-pushers”, has been especially vulnerable to this economy’s dubious relationship with the law.

Artist and urban geographer Ismail Farouk is setting out to rectify this through his new multidisciplinary urban intervention project and exhibition titled Trolley Works.

Trolley-pushers, as Farouk explains, are urban porters who use recycled supermarket trolleys to schlep heavy loads of luggage around the city for a small fee. Because their trolleys, most often rented from unforgiving ‘trolley lords”, are essentially stolen the police have a field day impounding them and fining or locking up their drivers. Initiated in December 2008, the Trolley Works project has sought practical ways to regulate and legalise trolley pushing in Joubert Park and its surrounds.

Since the problem for the police rests, officially at least, in the illegality of the trolleys themselves, Farouk, artist Rob Peers and their team of trolley-pushing collaborators have come up with a design for a bespoke steel porting trolley to replace the plastic supermarket numbers. Nine of these trolleys, which are owned by the porters themselves and not by the trolley lords, hit the streets in April this year. Since then they’ve been used not only for efficient cartage, but also as part of a performative urban mapping process that ties Farouk’s social conscience to the world of art.

To raise awareness about the project and about the inner city itself, Farouk and his team offer the public daily guided walking tours through the city, escorted by a flock of brightly coloured Trolley Works trolleys. Farouk says on his project blog: ‘We hope to expose people to the urban contradictions present in the city and are attempting to address the need to walk in the downtown area of Johannesburg. Walking in Johannesburg is strongly linked to class, race, crime, fear and paranoia.”

The tours leave from the Drill Hall and meander through the fashion district — a part of Joubert Park littered with clothing stores, each one with its own microphone-armed diva hustling potential customers through the entrance. They end up at an Abyssinian coffee shop, where your R150 tour fee gets you a cup of coffee freshly roasted over an open flame.

As an extension of the project, on Friday night at the new Goethe on Main experimental gallery space the Trolley Works team will exhibit a conceptual map of Johannesburg’s informal economy based on documentation of their walks through the city. A highlight of this event is an ‘Abyssinian coffee ceremony” and a one-off live trolley-pushing performance.

The Trolley Works exhibition and performance event takes place on May 29 at 7pm, at Goethe on Main, in the Arts on Main complex. See www.trolleyworks.net for more information

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