Soweto pop-up gallery merges arts, urban spaces

Four-room houses, crowded tavern interiors, Orlando Pirates emblems and other images often characterised by Soweto were among some of the artwork on show during the final week of pop-up gallery, Bombay Imagination Room.

Having run for three weeks at the former popular chesa nyama, Panyaza, in Soweto, the group show was curated by Mashumi Arts Project in association with Bombay Sapphire and concluded on December 3.

The gallery featured renowned artists over the duration, such as photographers Jodi Bieber and Andrew Shabangu, and printmaker David Koloane, as well as up and coming photographer Lungile Zaphi, painter Loyiso Mkize and printmaker Lehlogonolo Mashaba, to name a few.

Rolihlahla Mhlangu, from Mashumi, points out that the common thread connecting most of work on show at the gallery was the township. Most of the works reflected musings on the townships, while many of the artists are from such urban spaces created for non-white people during apartheid, he says.

"Painter Pat Mautlou and Lungile Zaphi are from Soweto, while Jodi Bieber's body of work in this show is on Soweto, and from her book [2010] Soweto," he said,  adding that printmakers like David Kolaone and Lehlogonolo Mashaba are also from other townships around Gauteng.

Global cultural campaign
Part of a global cultural campaign by the alcoholic brand, called Bombay Imagination, the former chesa nyama was refurbished over two months and converted into an exhibition space that, each week, profiled different art mediums: printmaking, painting and photography and performance.

Other campaigns by Bombay Sapphire's Imagination Series included a screenwriting and animation film competition, where the winners' works were screened at the Tribeca Film festival. The Bombay Imagination Room is the first of these campaigns to deal with fine art.

Undoubtedly a rare sight in Soweto, the art gallery was open to the public, and, on Sundays, would double as food and music venue too. "The reception was mind-blowing," Bombay Sapphire Imagination Room publicist Thulane Hadebe said.

Despite the platform it provides for up and coming talent, and providing a space in which Soweto residents can enjoy art, questions relating to the brand's promotion of arts and culture in Soweto, instead of, Melrose Arch or Sandton, were raised.

Hadebe explained the location was a deliberate choice because "it has history; it's next to the longstanding The Rock [nightclub] and was the old Panyaza, and it's not an obvious venue – like tourist hub Vilikazi Street … There's already galleries in Sandton and Newtown, so we wanted this space to be a destination and experience for our gallery visitors."

While viewing the art at Bombay Imagination Room, scepticism was evoked over the premium alcohol brand's presence in a township where the proliferation of shebeens and bottle stores don't lessen already high alcohol abuse rates.

Twenty-three-year-old Lungile Zaphi's photographs of taverns in her area – Mofolo, in Soweto – tackle social issues like alcoholism and possibly the legacy of apartheid in the area.


A Lungile Zaphi image. (Supplied)

Speaking about photographing the tavern, Zaphi relayed how, despite the patrons' apparent alcohol abuse patterns, the bar was a "sacred space for the many of the patrons, where they felt free at ease".

Religion and identity
Like Zaphi's images, issues such as addiction, poverty and abuse are almost unavoidable when addressing townships. Added to this, many of the artists at the Bombay Imagination Room also drew on topics such as religion and identity.

?World Press Photo of the Year winner in 2010, photographer Jodi Bieber's work at the Bombay Inspiration Room focuses on identity and belonging in some of her images. An example of this is a photograph of a yellow and black painted house representing soccer team Kaizer Chiefs, juxtaposed alongside an image of a black and white-painted house representing rival soccer team Orlando Pirates.

Speaking to the British Journal of Photography in 2011, the said she "saw the relevance of photographing Soweto as it is today because it would be a very sad thing, in a way, not to have a visual record".

Similarly to Bieber, photographer Andrew Tshabangu's body of work touches on faith while kwa-Thema born printmaker Lehlogonolo Mashaba'’s oeuvre, Markings of Belonging, delves into religion, tradition and identity.

During an interview at the venue, Mashaba said his silk screen images of numbers and letters that form human figures represent "people who have marks on their bodies to signify that they belong to a certain tribe … the letters also represent the Word, as a Christian this is very significant for me".

At the end of the walkabout, Zaphi shared that the tavern photographed in her collection underwent a slight metamorphosis. "I am not the only one who benefited from this [Bombay Imagination Room]. After taking photographs at the tavern, the young guys that drink there have decided to do more than just drink, they now host live music sessions at the tavern."

For more information about Bombay Imagination Room, click here.

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