At times, there are well-intentioned, but short-sighted or uninspiring campaigns and programmes aiming to uplift or transform the lives of the marginalised among us. Too often, these projects have awkward, patronising references to a “hood” or place the focus on the practitioner rather than the community being “uplifted”. Either this, or the execution is tacky and unconvincing and relies on the very subcultural tropes that it aims to uplift.
Someone who has grown increasingly frustrated with the way his community and similar ones are portrayed in major media outlets and pop culture is activist photographer and visual artist Imraan Christian.
Following the beautiful, arresting mural project in Munich with street artist and social activist Faith47, Christian has launched a new campaign of mural-making focused on re-centring and reframing the stories and storytelling about coloured communities in Cape Town.
Crediting the effect that artist activists Black Noise and Emile Jansen’s Heal Our Hood campaign had on him as a laaitie (youngster) at Fairview Primary School in Grassy Park, Christian named his campaign #HealOurHome.
“At its essence the name alludes to the ‘For Us By Us’ attitude that comes with this project. The lens is not one of an outsider looking in. Instead, it’s a call for each person and community to realise their agency and ability to make a positive change,” he says.
Through this work of creating collaborative murals in poor suburbs and among misrepresented people in Cape Town, Christian hopes “to bring light” just as he remembers Heal Our Hood’s school visits did for him.
The first mural, plastered across the side of a row of council houses, is in Hangberg, Hout Bay. The area is plagued by the usual consequences of historical race-based under-resourcing. This can be seen in an under-attended fundamental shift in the main industry of the area (fishing) and a deeply segregated population of the greater area along lines of race, education, income, access and mobility, as well as availability of resources.
The mural is an arresting image of a group of Hangberg kids in school uniforms and holding musical instruments and cameras — tools for storytelling and making art. “They are all dancers, and some musicians, and actors, and Peter [Michaels Parker] and myself are introducing photography and storytelling to them from a young age so that we can nurture the idea that it’s achievable and their dreams are valid,” says Christian.
On why the focus lies in storytelling and supporting the voices of people in these areas, Christian says: “Our imagination lies in our stories. Our imagination of self, of our potential and also our identity. Through the telling of your own story, you are both able to work through previous traumas and put forward ideas of growth and renewal.”
He stresses how important story-telling is to reclaiming a sense of self outside the imposed, oppressive narratives; telling your own story is like “sobering up and awakening to a connection much greater than a colonial history and, in so doing, connecting to those storytellers who came before us”. The greatest danger of an imposed story is “you believe and become the story that is fed to you”.
Christian is careful to point out that he is not trying to capture and represent the subcultures of the people in these coloured neighbourhoods but rather to focus on creating “positive self-imagery” as a way of being “conscious of what we are creating for the next generation; both physically and ideologically”.
“I think this idea has fallen by the wayside because basic survival has become a battle in many communities, but we are at a critical point in our history where the narrative needs to be shifted, or our children will inherit a lost battle.”
He knows this is not something he can achieve on his own. This first mural on the council housing walls has been created alongside the Harvest Youth Project, which he has been contributing to informally for two years. “I’ve witnessed the role they have played in so many kids from Hangberg’s lives. Because of their work and programme, there is a generation of kids who are dead-set on becoming dancers, actors and creators of different kinds — they are a bright light in a dark system.”
After becoming interested in the area because of its similarities to his own memories of childhood, Christian started becoming involved in Hangberg.
“There is a fighting spirit in Hangberg, and a deep ancestral connection to the land and those who came before us. So when I mentioned this idea to my collaborator, Peter Michaels Parker, there was nothing but ‘let’s dala’ — and within a week we had produced the imagery.”
Christian has long dreamed of creating mural artworks but it took a collaboration with Faith47 on a trip to street-art-filled Berlin to push him into the space where he felt free and motivated to try it out himself.
“I am truly grateful to [Faith47] because she elevated me into her world with our ongoing collaboration, and really affirmed how possible it is,” he says. “Once an affirmation takes place in the mind and heart,
it is like a new world opens up to you.”
The pair deconstructed Christian’s photographs of students during #FeesMustFall protests to create their murals exhibited in Munich and to be exhibited at the Everard Read gallery in Cape Town in September.
“The photograph documents a pivotal turning point … It poses the question of how we as individuals, as well as the media, become complicit in a culture of consuming violence, in which it is normalised, without real investigation into the systemic causes.
“By deconstructing the image [into a mosaic-like grid of mixed pieces], the piece [the mural] observes how specific events become part of the fabric of both personal and collective memory, and become transformed and fragmented over time. The artwork intends to provoke and bring visibility to much-needed transformation within the historical and institutional structures of South Africa.”
On the positive effect of the first mural in Hangberg, Christian says he has “already seen the community of Hangberg taking ownership of the mural, actively policing anyone who could cause damage to it”, as well as planning events in the area near the mural.
He imagines the subject matter for future murals must “affirm positive self-imagery and actions, specifically through art. So, musicians, artists, singers, painters, poets, dancers, writers, sports people and entrepreneurs within the community will be celebrated.
“In total, I’d like to do 11 full murals in Hangberg and use Hangberg as a pilot example of what we can create all around the Western Cape, South Africa and eventually the world,” he proclaims.
Christian is sourcing sponsors for the next murals and wants to work with people with ideas of how the project of owning your own narratives could grow.
“The reason we are at the will of violence is because our perception is confined to the same system that creates the violence. Once we begin telling our own stories, we will awaken to ourselves and realise that we are a part of a far greater and more ancient narrative, and from this perspective we are far more equipped to heal our home.”