An outsider’s Yeoville insight

A catalogue to accompany Hotel Yeoville (Fourthwall Books), a community art project that ran in the Yeoville suburb of Johannesburg for a year, has just been published. The project was conceived by visual artist Terry Kurgan and was executed with the help of lieutenants from several disciplines, from the architectural right through to the digital.  

The publication of the catalogue, a really beautiful object, is something of an ironic reversal, for the project’s basic premise runs counter to the “production and consumption” ethic — the logic of capital — that has gripped the art world for decades.

Hotel Yeoville should be seen as part of the socially responsible art that has sprung up on the margins of the mainstream. This “mode of art practice”, Kurgan writes in an essay in the book, “revolves around negotiation and reciprocation”. She contends that “this shifting dynamic in practice towards the collaborative, participatory and communal ‘reflects an intention on the part of practitioners, to reconnect art and lived experience as social process’”.

The publication of the catalogue helps to contextualise, set the para-meters, frame the difficulties and ­generally tell us what the project was really about.

Hotel Yeoville comprises essays by Kurgan herself; scholars Alex Dodd and Caroline Kihato; reportage by veteran newspaperman Justice Malala; a discussion between academic and artist Zen Marie and Kurgan; and this-is-how-we-did-it essays by Kurgan’s collaborators including the architect Alexander Opper, the digital brains of the project Tegan Bristow and others.

There are many beautiful pictures, moving tales, poems and scribblings  by some of those involved in the project (“Girls?/ Girls are like computers/ If you press the wrong button/ You get the wrong answer”).

Dodd introduces Kurgan, her interests and history, situating Hotel Yeoville in previous work the latter has done with Johannesburg communities. The spectre of Park Pictures, a 2005 collaborative effort with 40 ­photographers working out of ­Joubert Park, hovers in the background of the Yeoville project.

“My hope was to put a different conversation out into the world than the one that emerged through the extremes of xenophobic violence. I wanted to find a way to speak back to the big, abstract political story about migration and xenophobia with little, detailed, personal intimate stories,” as Dodd quoted Kurgan in an essay that introduces the catalogue.

Uninvited outsiders
Coming soon after the infamous violence against foreign nationals, the project shows Kurgan’s interest in “mining everyday snapshots for the stories that have been left out of the frame”. So instead of foreigners agonising over their lot in South Africa, the project got people to talk about their dreams, how they came to live in Johannesburg, the loved ones they left behind and other everyday stories. The result was a classic rendition of the ­personal being political and the ­private being public.

This dichotomy runs throughout Kurgan’s work. In her conversation with Marie, she said: “I kept thinking that this participatory art project was doing one thing within this suburb, and another amongst those who understood the language of this practice.” In fact, some of Yeoville’s community leaders and a few academics wanted the project to be about “activism and human rights”. And Kurgan, a white woman, was aware of her position as an “uninvited outsider” — a tourist.

She was conscious of “the pitfalls of parachuting a project … into a neighbourhood that had not asked for it”. Picking up on the unease expressed at the time of the project, Marie quizzed her: “There is a race thing in here which I want to get to. Is it a missionary impulse? Is it a sense of guilt, of needing to reconcile something that’s not quite coherent in terms of white experience in South Africa?”

I think, in many ways, the catalogue itself is better than the actual exhibition. Time, as in the proverb, obscures as many things as it clarifies. What seemed a chaotic free-for-all and a staged work-in-progress straddling the social and the artistic has with the passage of time and a beautiful publication acquired a staid, theoretical coherence.

So instead of mawkish sentimentality, what we have in the book is a much more controlled spurt of emotion. The work has been given structure by the editors of the book, the theorising by the scholars, and that great master: time.

Public Art/Private Lives runs at Gallery AOP, 44 Stanley Avenue, Braamfontein Werf until March 23. Attend a conversation between Kurgan and Sarah Nuttall on March 16 at 12pm


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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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