Graffiti in South Africa
When travelling, many do not stop to examine the images inscribed on walls and other features throughout the landscape. It is simple graffiti, right? They’re just symbols and words marking gang territories or the result some kid with nothing better to do with his time than mark the wall near his home with spray paint. When graffiti is hinted at in New York Times crossword puzzles as “unwanted art,” it becomes clear what the public’s view on graffiti is. To many, however, graffiti has developed into a medium for the expression of ideals and emotions. For these people, it has evolved from graffiti into a form of expression and art.
Graffiti and street art offer a great deal of information about culture as well as both past and present societal issues. Epitomizing this assertion, graffiti has played an odd role in the development of one of the gleaming accomplishments in post-apartheid South Africa, the Constitutional Court.
The words “Constitutional Court” are displayed in the 11 official languages of South Africa on the front wall of the court. The font of the signs, however, was not chosen at random for its aesthetic characteristics. Instead, the typeface was derived from graffiti sketched on the walls of the Old Fort prison cells located on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, which held political prisoners including Nelson Mandela. The designer of the sign, Garth Walker, has said, “This is my contribution to the ideals of a nation of truth, dignity, and freedom in a place that was once a bastion of incarceration, torture, and repression. (Shapiro, 2005)” Walker was able to take graffiti etched into the sides of prisons cells and physically turn it into a sign of liberty and freedom in South Africa.
While the modification of graffiti has played a unique role in a national symbol of freedom, the graffiti and street art throughout South Africa convey complex and intense emotions. “[Public markings in South Africa] embody a rare combination of abhorrence and optimism; of disparity and power. The magnitude of expression and striking use of color act as a reminder of the social and political differences they face in a society built on blatant distinction. (Newton, 2009)” Throughout South Africa, walls are adorned with messages dealing with everything from AIDS awareness to political rights and freedom.
Located just off of a major highway in Cape Town, taking up an entire wall face, are the words “forward we shall march to a peoples government.” This image, clearly a form of graffiti or street art, is a perfect example of the messages displayed throughout South Africa. It is a clear political statement. It shows continued resolve for the people to end injustice brought upon them by their government. While today there isn’t an oppressive apartheid government, the South African government is fraught with corruption and scandals. This street art shows the continued “march” of South Africans towards a truly representative government serving the needs of the people. While protests draw media attention and the public eye for a short period of time, messages like this can last for years, with hundreds, and probably thousands of people seeing them daily. As a tourist and geographer travelling in a foreign country, images like this allow me to gain a better understanding of the issues at hand within a country. When coupled with firsthand interaction with people of South Africa, messages such as this allow for a better analysis of the country and its most prominent social issues.
Throughout our trip, many pieces of street art we saw provided a great historical narrative which allowed for an easier interpretation of some of the most important events of the past. For example, in Soweto there were many different pieces of wall art that depicting the some of the most devastating pieces of the areas history, including the killing of Hector Pieterson and the student protests. It is important to note that, even after 45 years, these momentous and terrible events have taken on modern forms of expression and art and continue to be remembered by, and taught to, those who live in South Africa. It is literally engrained onto wallsfor all to remember, and for us, as geographers, to learn from. It is easy to determine that the youth movement and resistance against the oppressive apartheid government was not simply a small part in a larger movement, but was integral.
Much of the street art in South Africa serves another roll as well. It is meant to turn an otherwise mundane and dull wall, into a colorful and vibrant work of art. Many projects have developed throughout the country to promote community pubic art projects, including many individual pieces of art within a single area. This promotion serves to create a welcoming and festive environment while also displaying some sort of narrative, as all art does.
I have found, through many arguments with people, that their is a large portion of society that looks at something that was painted on a wall as simply a form of destruction of property. There is a general lack of appreciation for the simply artistic value that graffiti and street art possess as well as the incredible amount of information that can be obtained by analyzing these pieces of work. In the case of South Africa, street art tells the tale of the complexity of the issues facing the nation and the deep seeded root of their problems.
Source not in hypertext:
Shapiro, Ellen. “Written In Dirt.” Print 59.1 (2005): 20. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 19 Dec. 2011.