Streets ahead in the realm of public art

Finding words to express an appreciation of the work of street artist Faith47 need not be an academic exercise. That’s the beauty of street art: it is there for its own sake, to interrupt the flow of human traffic, to add to the noise of the city, to draw attention to the surface on which it exists. It is there to say a hearty “hey you!” or “fuck you!” to passers-by.

Yet, as an act of decoration, street art often provides little more than a window into the selfish soul of its creator.

But street art in Johannesburg, in some instances, at least strives to ­represent the expanding consciousness of the artist. Faith47 is an exemplary practitioner whose work endeavours to speak of the experience of the masses. The way she makes art in overlooked city spaces harks back to a time when parts of the city belonged to a more down-to-earth class of ­artist.

In the dark days of apartheid the avant-garde joined the grassroots at Dorkay House, the Johannesburg Art Foundation under the late Bill Ainslie, the Polly Street art centre, the Market Theatre, in the Possession Arts group, or even at the Federated Union of Black Arts.

Those pioneering sites of inner-city art production were supposed to have grown organically out of the turbulence of the previous regime — despite the restrictions of the time. In her book Red on Black, about the South African poster movement, Judy ­Seidman draws the link between ­cultural activism, community art centre development and the enabling of political poster production that, arguably, was a precursor to the street art of today.

The posters themselves had a graffiti aesthetic, they were created and hung overnight and had only a couple of days, if not hours, of life before being torn down.

This tenuous relation to impermanence — and the need to have one’s identity and issues known — is also what has driven ordinary people to scratch and write their names and beliefs on walls.

It is what drives Faith47 to scour the city, and this includes her home town of Cape Town, for bits of writing that are not self-conscious under bridges and in derelict, evicted homes.

She takes photographs of ugly graffiti and tagging carved by members of the lumpen proletariat and gangs for inclusion in her own codified works. The basic ploy, it seems, is to create street art with ambiguous boundaries.  These days, so much of it happens at Arts on Main in the Maboneng precinct in Johannesburg.

Going with the flow
The developments at Arts on Main today are not happening in a vacuum. And although they are seen, by some, as a dubious attempt at inner-city gentrification by stealthy capitalistic developers, no one can deny that the precinct is the inheritor of the community art centre phenomenon. It’s in a working-class neighbourhood and is now a major site of multicultural art production in the city.

Just as the Maboneng precinct itself is an area of development whose boundaries are fluid, so the work of street artists in the vicinity come and go. And it’s hard to tell who painted what and when. And who painted over what, and when.

Faith47’s official website biography reads like a bit of a Hallmark card. It functions as a manifesto by which one may, like an examiner, begin to give her marks for effort: “Faith investigates what traces, scratches and m­emories people leave in their surroundings. In lost places and found objects she sees beauty and brings to life that which has been forgotten and often discarded by society.

“Her interactions give form to deeply penetrating visual enigmas resonating with our impermanence and our elusive relationship with symbols and memories, dreams and parables.”

Pinning the artist down is an art in itself. Faith47 doesn’t part with her real name and she doesn’t allow photographs to be taken of her. You may think it’s corny and the first accusation is, of course, that Faith is “doing a Banksy”, referencing that great ­British street artist who is so internationally successful that he could be considered the Walmart of wall art.

I met Faith47 at Arts on Main on a weekday when she was preparing for her first gallery show in the print studio of David Krut Projects, to be titled Fragments of a Burnt History. Because she works incognito, I mistook Faith for the young female printmaker assisting her with a monoprint of a scowling dog.

It’s a work that has already been produced on various city walls internationally. Now it will be a work on paper, for sale.

We took ourselves off to Canteen, the restaurant in the courtyard at Arts on Main. Here, over herbal tea, I found her to be unco-operative and unpredictable, as I had expected. That was the good part. (While conducting an interview one really doesn’t want unnecessary fawning.) She wouldn’t tell me what perfume she wears and what books she’s reading.

Amazingly, she was prepared to part with this: “I have some red lipstick. I wear it like twice a year when I’m feeling fierce.” Then she refused to talk about what she calls “the graffiti scene”.

With reluctance she showed me the music downloaded on her laptop. This included the Velvet Underground, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Kraftwerk and Joy Division. Very retro. Her favourite bands of the moment are the Wild Beasts, the Elite Gymnastics and Grimes.

She confessed to a big love of Die Antwoord and made an amazing ­revelation: Faith47 and Ninja, leader of Die Antwoord, both use the same tattoo artist. But wait, there’s more. The tattoo artist’s name is Tyler B Murphy and she has a 15-year-old son with him.

Today, however, Faith and Tyler are not a unit. Today she is married to a famous Chinese street artist simply called DAL. “I met my husband in Shenzhen,” she said. “He’s been living in South Africa now for two years. He also started out doing graffiti and his street works translate perfectly on to canvas. He has a solo show in New York at the Jonathan Levine Gallery, in Chelsea, in December.

If appearance is important to the reader, Faith47 is tall, thin and blonde and she looks like a serious artist with somewhat unkempt hair. And she wears black clothing.

In case endorsement is needed, she has made her mark on walls in many big cities (the list includes Milan, Stockholm, Vienna, Berlin, New York, Paris, London, Tel Aviv, Melbourne, Cologne), not because she is a subversive with a personal travel budget, but because she has been commissioned to do so. Faith47 is a successful, working street artist.

And so we spent the morning gazing at the screen of Faith47’s laptop, scrolling through the works on her website. One of the most striking was an image of two pale white rhinos on the side of a half-demolished house in central Shanghai. In the background one can see a vast grey grid of high-rise apartments. The work, in totality, presents three periods, beginning with the ancient, endangered creature. Of course, the blame for the rhino’s demise rests with Asia. But there were other reasons why Faith chose to execute the work right there.

Abandoned spaces
“I wanted to paint the ghosts of the rhino in Asia, specifically because I wanted to find them a symbolic resting place,” she told me. “In Shanghai there are a lot of buildings that are getting knocked down to build high rise flats. These [partially destroyed buildings] are old communist houses that had communal kitchens and bathrooms.

“The families that don’t want to move out are called the ‘nail families’. You can see there are people living there — even on the second floor. It is so rotten; it is really bad. The government knocks down the infrastructure around them and just leaves them to move out in their own time. I assume it’s some kind of tactic to get them to move. The fact that they are becoming extinct resonates with the plight of the rhinos that are also being lost due to expanding civilisation.”

So besides its mysterious and atmospheric qualities, the work has something of an agitprop function. Not that all its intended audience members give a damn.

I live a stone’s throw from Louis Botha Avenue with its community of African migrants from Kinshasa and Lagos who spend their days in hair salons and internet cafes not staring at art on walls.

But it is here, from a certain moment about a month ago, one began to see Faith’s poster campaign roll-out titled The Long Wait. These were multiple images of men waiting in queues; the individuals portrayed were culled from photographs taken by her friend Alexia Webster. But it didn’t take long before the posters were torn down.

To venture an opinion, it could be that the poor folk of Louis Botha didn’t need to see any more images of urban despair. They would probably have preferred it had their rundown environment been given a lick of paint.

But they would no doubt have appreciated the sentiments that Faith47 expressed in her artist’s statement: “Miners are waiting for justice. Workers are waiting for a living wage. People are waiting for service delivery. Refugees are waiting for assistance. Men are waiting for jobs. We are all waiting for an honest politician. So many people are waiting for others to do things first. To take the blame. To do things for them. To take the fall. To build the country. To admit defeat. There has been so much waiting in this country that much time has been lost.”

Even in their state of defacement, without heads and with bodies torn, Faith’s works continue to have impact. Next week she moves her work into a commercial gallery setting for her first solo show. One wonders whether the gallery walls will render as much meaning as the walls on the street.

Works in The Long Wait can be found in Soweto and in Jo’burg in Newtown, Maboneng precinct, Commissioner Street, Jan Smuts Avenue, Oxford Street, Louis Botha Avenue, Braamfontein, Yeoville and Rosebank. Fragments of a Burnt History opens at David Krut Projects, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, on November 8. Tel: 011 880 5648. Website:

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Matthew Krouse
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