For an Intimate Look at South Africa’s Booming Art Scene, Head to the Townships

Artists from the districts are turning their own homes into welcoming galleries and workshops and providing a much more rewarding experience.

For an Intimate Look at South Africa’s Booming Art Scene, Head to the Townships

Langa Township is brimming with art, both on the streets and in private homes.

By Tony Campbell / Shutterstock

Bent over a table in the dimly lit kitchen of his home in Cape Town’s Langa Township, Velile Soha sinks the U-shaped end of a wood-handled linoleum cutter into a small square of the matte, black material. Holding it at a shallow angle, he firmly pushes the tool forward.

As the cutter glides through the linoleum, narrow strips curl up and away from the tile’s surface. Soha plucks the loosened pieces free to reveal a grid of gray lines, then hollows out half a dozen alternating squares to complete his checkerboard-like design. While carving his initials into the tile, Soha says, “My name is Velile. The name Veli means to appear, or to show. It is a Xhosa name.”

The translation is fitting. Soha—a 50-something artist whose home is also a display space for his own prints, watercolors, abstracts, and other pieces—is showing a small group of travelers the basics of printmaking.

Using a paint roller, he coats the tile’s surface in deep black ink, then presses it onto a waiting sheet of white paper. Seconds later, he peels the tile away and a crisp, mirror image of his design pops out on the page. With the lesson complete, it’s his guests’ turn to try.

Velile Soha showcases his work in his own home on the tour.

Velile Soha showcases his work in his own home on the tour.

Photo by Lindsay Lambert Day

Compared to museums, studios, and classrooms in city centers, Soha’s own home might seem like an unlikely setting for a workshop like this. But in Langa, the scenario is becoming more common. He is one of several artists in Cape Town and Johannesburg who have partnered with Maboneng Township Arts Experience, an organization founded in Johannesburg in 2001 that helps artists living in townships near the two cities turn their homes into galleries.

For visitors, these art-themed tours of the townships give glimpses into an often overlooked side of local life and provide immediate context and insight that is missing from urban galleries. For artists and locals living in the more removed and frequently impoverished districts, the trips bring them a whole new audience and potential customers.

View this post on Instagram Is the township a different place? Book a tour and you tell us. #TownshipsIntoTowns A post shared by Maboneng Township Arts (@maboneng_arts) on Mar 24, 2018 at 6:54am PDT

Artists on the outskirts

Although Soha, who is said to be the oldest printmaker in Langa, has exhibited his work in some of Cape Town’s high-end galleries, many artists who hail from the townships have found breaking into the cities’ respective crowded art scenes almost impossible.

Sephiwe Ngwenya, Maboneng Arts’ founder and a native of Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, started the business after struggling to find space for his own work in the capital city’s galleries.

In 2001, after graduating from Johannesburg’s National School of the Arts, Sephiwe “walked with his artwork for two hours [to galleries in Johannesburg], and when he got there he was actually told about a two-year waiting list,” his brother, Bongani, Maboneng’s experience manager, tells us during our tour. “That encouraged him to go back into Alexandra Township to then partner up with other creatives who were struggling to showcase their artwork.”

Bongani Ngwenya showcases some of James Mosoke-Lulu's artworks.

Bongani Ngwenya showcases some of James Mosoke-Lulu’s artworks.

Photo by Lindsay Lambert Day

“When Sephiwe first came to Cape Town in 2008, he already had artist friends, so they were the ones who connected him to Velile,” Ngwenya says of the organization’s early days in the city. “So when we first had our festival here in Langa Township, it was easy for us to go out and look for other like-minded artists. And over the years, we just create a bond and a relationship with the homeowners, and they’re able to introduce us to others. It takes time.”

Maboneng Arts currently partners with eight households in Langa—up from four just earlier this year.

Some of the owners are, like Soha, artists. Others are non-artists who offer up their property as exhibit space. One such resident we meet later in our tour is Hazel Siyaya, a retired schoolteacher. Her porch and living room walls are replete with works by artist James Musoke-Lule, a Uganda native and Cape Town resident who makes elaborate, beaded textiles and uses denim discarded from Cape Town’s old garment mills as his canvas for painting.

“Hazel lives here with her children. This is a family of 11,” says Bongani Ngwenya as he shows the small group of guests to her door. “She’s responsible for every one of them. Her daughter works, and she is employed by us, bringing visitors into her house.

“The whole idea is to make sure that people who live in [townships] take advantage of the tourism footfall that comes into Langa,” Ngwenya continues. “So we have made sure that we have created an ecosystem model where everyone actually benefits from those travelers who do visit Langa Township.”

Visitors have historically been wary of going to townships due to safety concerns. The Maboneng Arts initiative helps bring them to the areas, providing a stable source of income to the artists and gallery homeowners, and drives tourist traffic to the neighborhoods at large.

That means that cultural sites and community centers, such as Nelson Mandela’s former home in Johannesburg, the Guga S’thebe Arts & Cultural Center, and the Langa Heritage Museum in Langa, also benefit. During some tour stops, travelers can purchase gifts and artworks made by local craftsmen and women—sometimes directly from them, and often for less than $20 or $30.

“We want to change the way tourism is done in these areas so that more and more people can benefit,” Ngwenya says.

Art peers out from all kinds of surfaces in Langa township.

Art peers out from all kinds of surfaces in Langa township.

Photo by LIndsay Lambert Day

A hands-on, in-home experience In addition to the guided walking tours of gallery homes, guests who want to try their hand at creating something of their own can sign up for workshops, like the one offered by Soha.

These include an introductory mosaic-making class, a cookery class focused on magwenya (dense, doughy pastries), and a denim-painting workshop.

Regardless of whether guests come for a full day or a half day, and whether they opt for a walking tour or a workshop, they’ll be treated to an experience that is, arguably, far more personal and intimate than any traditional gallery can provide.

For the group of guests arriving at Hazel Siyaya’s house, that means finding her kitchen table set with warm casseroles, bowlfuls of cooked vegetables, and two tall, label-less bottles of ginger beer, all homemade in anticipation of their lunchtime arrival. Their visit might be short, but as long as they’re here, they’ll be fed like family.

“We just want to make sure that anyone who does come into Langa Township, or Alexandra Township, is able to immerse themselves in the community and become part of it by the time they leave,” Ngwenya says.

Full-day gallery-home tours (five hours) in Langa and Alexandra are $109; half-day tours (three hours) are $74. Workshops (from two hours) start at $60. Transportation service is offered for R200.00 (approximately $13.50).

>> Next: Cape Town Celebrates Nelson Mandela with Powerful Tributes and a New Visitor Trail

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