/ 3 August 2017

We flew out of the creative nest

Cape Town’s artists and creatives made Creative Nestlings their creative home base in the past couple of years. The future of such spaces is uncertain but founder Dillon Phiri has relocated to Jo'burg and says ‘watch this space’.
Cape Town’s artists and creatives made Creative Nestlings their creative home base in the past couple of years. The future of such spaces is uncertain but founder Dillon Phiri has relocated to Jo'burg and says ‘watch this space’.

It’s 6pm in Cape Town and we know that it’s time to leave. This is the magic hour, when colour is drained out of the city. This is something we know deeply, not something we say.

When you grow up accustomed to playing in shadows, it becomes difficult to think of your existence as anything other than transitory. Where do our memories live in a space that does not want us? How do we remember ourselves within this city?

I think, often as creative people, especially those of colour, we find ourselves focusing on the concept of showcasing. We want to be seen. I believe, for us to be remembered, we need to record the significance of the spaces, places and art we create.

Recently, as I walked along Long Street and into Greenmarket Square, I became acutely aware of the physical absence of Creative Nestlings and Boaston Society.

I searched online for both these spaces, which used to be meeting, working and event spaces for young black and brown creative communities. I found many press releases and interviews but no record of the effect of these spaces, especially in Cape Town.

This article is an attempt to fill that vacuum — to create the room for memorialising and actively engaging with their popular culture ­legacies.

When asked about Creative Nestlings, my friend tells me: “They had the audacity to come into the Cape Town CBD and say, ‘We would like a space’, jumping all the hoops and getting a lease going. Which I feel like a lot of black creatives are conditioned to not even attempt.”

They had the audacity to have an address — to be found.

As for Boaston Society, a clothing and lifestyle store for street culture, its address was 55 Long Street.

Boaston was the brainchild of Elisha Mpofu, who had the vision of a store that went beyond capitalist consumption. It was an embodiment of youth street culture — echoing the patterns, sounds and styles of young people who cared about art, music, fashion and expression.

There was an understanding that Boaston was embedded in a culture that was ultimately fed by people. At any time, going through the store’s shelves, you would find brands you would never see in bigger retail spaces. 2Bop merchandise was available there before they had a physical store.

Boaston also became a small exhibition space, a black box with graphic prints on the walls. I think it was the first time I had seen graphic, graffiti-styled prints in a store where I could buy the art. Each of the prints had the designers’ personalised tags and, for the first time, I was seeing street culture being valued and validated.

I bought my first-ever graphic design print at the store in 2014. The drawing was of a young man sitting on a pavement, head leaning on his hand. In front of him, a hat is overturned, serving as a collection tin. On the front of the hat is a placard that reads “concepts”. The artist behind it was Musonda Kabwe, then a second-year student, now a successful graphic designer and illustrator.

It’s no secret, and even comes as no surprise, that Boaston Society and Creative Nestlings were inextricably linked. Mpofu is good friends with Dillion Phiri, the co-founder of Creative Nestlings, along with his wife Nokulunga Mateta-Phiri. As a research and development company, as well as a network for black creatives, Creative Nestlings formed an important place for young artists and entrepreneurs to connect.

Their motto was a simple proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

It was with this philosophy that Boaston Society and Creative Nestlings were able to pool their resources in their beginning days, with the Boaston store serving as the de facto base for Creative Nestlings, before their own NEST Space opened in 2015.

Before the NEST Space came into being, Creative Nestlings was best known for the Conversations on Creativity series they held. These were free events that brought together industry professionals and emerging creatives to meet and share knowledge. It was at these conversations that industry professionals and brands became accessible — where our heroes were revealed to be flesh and blood.

One particular event that I vividly remember is a conversation featuring Mpofu, visual artist and feminist provocateur Lady Skollie (Laura Windvogel), Marco Morgan, a skateboard activist, and Gareth Pon, a photographer, filmmaker and top Instagrammer.

Whether the panellists were local or international, these conversations allowed us to become intimate with their work, breaking through the isolation and pedestrianisation of celebrity culture. The combination of panellists was always refreshing and would throw in a mix of people for an unpredictable conversation.

Eventually, in 2015, when Boaston Society was slowing down, Creative Nestlings found the NEST Space, their new home.

The NEST provided a co-working space for members, as well as a continuation of the conversations and space to transform ideas into reality. The NEST Space closed in July 2016 and the Phiri family relocated to Johannesburg.

In remembering the effect of these spaces, Boaston Society and the NEST Space are both linked by the fact that we could exist within them at no extra charge, something rare to experience in a city like Cape Town. We were not required to buy a drink or a meal to validate our presence.

They made us and our creativity visible in a way that we had not experienced before. In them, we had a physical community to draw from and exist within. They proved to us that we do not just exist in the ether.

When I approached Phiri for comment, he had this to say: “The NEST Space was an experiment to see what a hub could look like. Guaranteed it will come back.”

But, until then, may the audacity to occupy a city remain in the collective memories of our creative ­communities.