Paint speaks to power

Nothing says defiance like the slogan “WE WON’T MOVE”, a public declaration made by the black residents of Sophiatown during forced removals in 1955 under the apartheid government using the Group Areas Act.

Photographer Jurgen Schadeberg’s black-and-white photograph of three black men playing a board game on a pavement, with the statement painted in capitals on a wall behind them, encapsulated the mood of that time and is an example of how graffiti can be a loud voice in a protest movement. All you have to do is to read it.

Sixty years later, the walls in South Africa display a different form of protest – a different struggle faced by youths who are trying to find their place in the white university spaces of a democratic country.

“Biko suffocates here” was written on the walls of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Great Hall last year. Imagining Steve Biko, the slain leader of the Black Consciousness movement, struggling to breathe, brings great discomfort. That’s what suffocation does – it breeds restlessness, the result of Biko’s ideologies not being lived and realised in tertiary institutions.

The struggle is no longer resisting removal but trying to occupy a space.

In an article, Expressivism and Resistance: Graffiti as an Infrapolitical Form of Protest against the War on Terror, Guillaume Marche says graffiti makes forceful claims for space. Graffiti artists such as Cost, Revs, Blek le Rat and Banksy have taken their work to the streets to make bold comments about sociopolitical matters, and force their way into barricaded spaces. In a way, they’re claiming their space.

Banksy, a celebrated anonymous British graffiti artist, has produced many thought-provoking pieces, which include “One nation under CCTV”, “Don’t forget to eat your lunch and make some trouble” and “If you want to achieve greatness stop asking for permission”.

Graffiti has evolved from being only a form of written identity by gangs, who use it to mark their territory, to moving art (on subway trains) and static art with a political statement.

The hip-hop culture in the 1970s helped to legitimise graffiti as an art form. (Even with this recognition, graffiti still gets dismissed as vandalism, which it is by law. And, if it doesn’t look artistic, people often won’t give it a second look.)

The birth of the stencil graffiti genre in the 1980s, made popular by Blek le Rat in Paris, is favoured in contemporary South African street art. You can’t refer to stencil graffiti without mentioning Banksy – who was influenced by Blek le Rat – because he has inspired aspiring artists, such as the Jo’burg-based artists collective Project Hoopoe. The collective operates anonymously on Wits campus and their aim is to “incite revolution through art”.

South African graffiti artist Mars says, globally, graffiti is going in “an art-orientated direction”.

“Graffiti now is mostly done by artists, or people trying to be artists, and their messages differ depending on the individual and their interests,” he maintains. “As far as activism is concerned, that sort of graffiti can be done by any person with a spray can and a point to get across. You don’t see this kind of graffiti too often.”

Project Hoopoe expresses its political views mostly in a tunnel on the Wits grounds. Some of its pieces have been eradicated but that’s part and parcel of graffiti. It’s an art form with a short lifespan, which is what makes it so effective.

The political messages of graffiti art look out of place on whatever canvas is used. It grabs your attention and forces you to listen. The words may be erased but the message stays engraved in the reader’s mind.

Graffiti on campuses is now being used to drive awareness about black consciousness. Last year, Project Hoopoe paid tribute to Robert Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress who died in 1978, with a stencil piece showing the political leader sowing what the organisation describes as “seeds of the revolutionary thought”, with the accompanying words “Izwe lethu” and “Rest in power Sobukwe” painted in the tunnel. Artwork like this keeps the names of the fallen leaders and their ideologies alive.

Students at the University of the Free State (UFS) followed suit last month by painting the names of political activists on the trunks of trees on campus. The names included Biko, Chris Hani, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Robert Mugabe, Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. Sobukwe’s name was painted on the law faculty building, as a way of renaming it.

A student from the UFS, who didn’t want to be named, tried to shed light on the motive for the graffiti.

“There are a lot of buildings here that we have been having dialogues about changing their names but no changes have been made by university management. And because the university management has not brought any change, this has become a way of expressing ourselves.”

In the student protests paint is being used as a weapon to fight and challenge authority, to make people feel uncomfortable and to reimagine a future for the university community. Graffiti symbolises liberation.

The idea of freedom of expression is depicted brilliantly on a wall at the main campus of the University of Pretoria, where students are free to express their views.

It was ironic to the see the words “Afrikaans must fall” right next to “Red Afrikaans” (Save Afrikaans), in light of the student protests over the university’s language policy. Without any bloodshed or broken limbs, the text drove the message home.

Not everyone can attend the marches but they will be able to read those statements, republished on social media.

This year photographs of a shack erected at the University of Cape Town went viral. The shack, known as #Shackville, was accompanied by graffiti and the words “UCT housing crisis”. These were symbols of a reality faced by some students at UCT and summed up the students’ grievances in a gripping way.

Artist Diego Gonzalez says: “The benefit of public art is not conscious or literal; it’s something that is more unconscious. What it does is it raises the energy of a community; it asks you whether you want to be part of this community. Whether this represents you and how you feel about the community.”

And that’s exactly what graffiti does: it evokes something in you.

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